Captive AudienceThe Brief Theatrical Career of an American P.O.W. in Nazi Germany
Lieutenant Joe Consolmagno, A39, had planned to spend his 25th birthday on leave in London taking in a play in the West End. For months, ever since the early fall of 1942, when he had been transferred to England as part of the Eighth Air Force’s 306th Bombardment Group, Joe had jumped at any chance to see a London show. The highlight was attending the opening night of They Came to a City and watching the playwright, J.B. Priestley, one of his favorite authors, come on stage to take a bow. Of course, there was also the matter of fighting a war, one he realized would probably be extremely short-lived, at least for a B-17 navigator such as himself.
The Boeing B-17, known as the Flying Fortress for its heavy armament, was a plane that could take a beating and also repel attack. Yet the average life of a B-17 over Europe was only eleven missions. At Tufts, Joe had been an economics major, and it wasn’t hard for him to do the math. He knew that few fliers got far beyond a handful of missions. It was simply a question of whether he would be killed or safely bail out. But he was an optimist and had been brushing up on his college French, sure that he would be able to evade capture and return to England via the Pyrenees and Spain.
His first mission was the scariest. They were on a raid over Lille, France, when German fighters pounced on them, destroying two of the four engines, the radio, and part of the rudder. The plane took 2,000 bullets in all. A third engine was soon out, and the pilot prepared to ditch in the English Channel. At the last moment, a British Spitfire appeared, wiggling his wings for them to follow. Then it dropped its landing gear as a signal that there was a hidden airfield below. An Associated Press article from October 1942 reported the outcome: “The struggling bomber just cleared the hill and rolled onto a runway directly in front of a field of which the crew had never known before. The crew agreed that their plane probably could not have flown another 100 yards.” Miraculously, no one was hurt.
Not long after, Joe was forced to stand down on a mission because of a bad cold. The same crew, with whom he had trained, never returned.
Now, on April 5, 1943, Joe was about to take off on his eighth mission. He barely knew the men he was flying with, but the mission was supposed to be a milk run, an easy flight against an airplane assembly plant in Antwerp. Although the target was said to be lightly defended, it proved to be anything but. Before they even arrived, two of their engines were in flames from ground fire. Waves of German fighter planes followed, and the order to bail out was soon given. Four miles above the earth, Joe dived out head first. The jolt of his parachute ripped off one of his boots. As he slowly descended, a German fighter plane wandered by. “I braced to feel the shock of gunfire,” Joe later wrote in an article. “But the enemy didn’t fire. He circled me so closely that I could see his oxygen-masked face, and he waved. I waved back. It didn’t seem appropriate to be impolite.”
The understatement with which he recalled nearly being blasted out of the sky is typical Joe. Thin and fit, with the quick wit of a city desk editor, Joe welcomed me to his home in Englewood, Florida, joking that “you know you’re getting old when you’re interviewed by an anthropologist.” Joe seemed comfortable in his own body, no matter that it was starting on its tenth decade. I was there to find out about his wartime experiences—how he wound up on the forefront of the theater scene in a German prisoner-of-war camp—and Joe was only too happy to tell me. With sparkling eyes and a ready smile, Joe exuded an air of mischief. Clearly, it had kept him young.
Like many prewar Tufts students, Joe had grown up locally and lived with his parents in Medford throughout college. But living at home didn’t curtail his involvement in campus life. He was class historian, manager of the lacrosse team, a sports columnist, and, in his senior year, editor-in-chief of The Tufts Weekly. His real passion, however, was theater, which he discovered thanks to Marston Balch, the charismatic head of Tufts’ drama program for 35 years.
Besides taking drama and playwriting with Balch, Joe acted in every production of his he could. “I loved playing the heavies,” Joe recalled. His favorite show was Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset, the story of an Italian-American’s execution for a crime he didn’t commit. But he also acted in other plays such as Liliom, The Pursuit of Happiness, and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, where once again he was the heavy. “I learned to direct by watching Professor Balch,” Joe said. It was a skill he would soon put to use.
Joe went to work for the Medford Mercury upon graduation, but with war looming, he joined the Air Corps’ Flying Cadet Program. Though he wanted to be a pilot, he soon washed out. “I’d never been in an airplane before and was always half sick,” he told me. “I also kind of cheated on my depth perception test,” a problem that led to repeated crash landings. When war did begin, he quickly reenlisted and even before Pearl Harbor was training as a navigator.
It was after a stint guiding a Flying Fortress in the Pacific that Joe’s bomber group was relocated to Europe and Joe found himself floating in the air four miles over Belgium. He landed unhurt in the middle of a shipyard just south of Antwerp. Before he could even untangle his chute, a German soldier was standing above him waving a pistol. Joe recalled the irony of his own calm delight in finding himself in one piece and the German’s nervousness. He worried that the gun might go off by accident. “Für Sie ist der Krieg vorbei,” the soldier said. “For you the war is over”—a phrase heard by every airman taken prisoner. “I think they were required to say it, but I also think I heard some envy in his voice,” Joe said. Only later did he discover the true cost of the mission. The ground fire and fighters had pushed the bombers so far off course that only five bombs hit their target. The rest landed on the small Belgian town of Mortsel, killing nearly 1,000 civilians and wounding 1,300 more, many of them schoolchildren. It was Belgium’s deadliest night of the war and a disaster that Joe would never erase from his mind.
The next day, his 25th birthday, was spent sitting in St. Gilles Prison in Brussels. Soon, though, he found himself in Stalag Luft III (short for Stammlager Luft, or “Permanent Camp for Airmen”)—a large camp a hundred miles southeast of Berlin in what is now Poland. Immortalized in the film The Great Escape, it was the site of one of the most daring breakouts of the war when, in March 1944, 76 men crawled out of a 330-foot tunnel. Only three men reached home. Of those recaptured, 50 were executed. When Joe arrived nearly a year earlier, there were just over 200 Americans. Most of the prisoners were British and Commonwealth RAF officers, some of whom had been held for three years or more. While Joe helped with some of the tunnel’s sand dispersal, he, like most of the Americans, simply observed and learned from the Old Hands.
Not long after arriving, Joe got his first taste of prison theater. As for getting involved, he “wouldn’t even try.” With such talented organizers as the future National Theatre director Kenneth Mackintosh and the actors Rupert Davies and Peter Butterworth, it was the site of a steady stream of high-quality productions of Shakespeare, Shaw, Coward, and others. In fact, Joe still recalls the brilliant version of Blithe Spirit he saw more than 65 years ago. “At the start,” he recounted, “the director stepped through the curtains, the audience stood to attention, including the German guests, and said in chorus, ‘God save the King.’ The Germans were visibly flustered, but the house lights were quickly doused and the play begun.”
What he did decide to do was to start a paper. But for that he needed news, so he wrote to Bill Cunningham at the Boston Herald asking for letters “with sports and other news that wouldn’t be forbidden by the censors of either side.” While prisoners were permitted to send four postcards and three one-page letters per month, there was no limit to how many they could receive. Cunningham obliged by writing a long feature in August 1943 under the heading “War Prisoner Appeals to Bill: Consolmagno of Tufts Seeks News for Eagles in Nazi Cage.” A week later, The Tufts Weekly picked up the story and ran its own front-page article, claiming that “Lt. Consolmagno is very definitely one of Tufts’ heroes of the air, and his appeal for mail deserves an all-out Tufts response.”
It worked. Within weeks, Joe was deluged with mail from people he’d never met. He even received a letter from his freshman English professor, the poet John Holmes. By this time, however, someone else had already started a camp paper, and Joe had been recruited into another scheme. Because of his experience in journalism, he was approached by the camp’s clandestine intelligence and asked if he would be willing to join a select group in writing and deciphering coded letters. He quickly agreed, though it meant laboriously going through the volumes of mail now reaching him, coded or not.
The code, which the British originated, was based on a grid, with each writer using a different set of key words. Of course, none of the writers knew who any of the others were and simply passed the information on to a single commanding officer. The coded letters Joe received were all from strangers and often contained information on the arrival of contraband to be used in escape: maps in playing cards, money in vinyl records, compasses in clothing. “Once I got in the code business, every one of my letters was in code,” Joe recalled. His family and his fiancée had no idea that Joe’s letters were being intercepted and decoded before being resealed and delivered to them. The letters contained information from newly arrived prisoners who were debriefed on everything they had seen from the moment they were shot down. Joe continued receiving and sending military secrets over the next two years and was commended for his efforts by Military Intelligence at the end of the war.
By late summer 1943, some 2,000 Americans were crowded into Stalag Luft III, with more downed airmen arriving daily. The camp was bursting at the seams. At the beginning of September, the Americans were separated from the British and relocated in two freshly erected compounds, Joe going with the somewhat larger group to the South Compound. Within a month they were constructing a new theater, entirely built and paid for by themselves. Perfectly raked, with 340 comfortable seats made from Red Cross boxes, the theater would be the center of camp activity as well as a source of great pride. With a sizable orchestra pit, dressing rooms, a lighting system made from biscuit tins, and a catwalk for the spotlights, it was indeed an impressive venue. It even had a red silk curtain donated by the Y.M.C.A. “It was certainly a lot better than Jackson Gym,” Joe laughed, recalling the basic structure that once sat near the old campus golf course and doubled as Tufts’ theater.
The theater contained four classrooms for what became known as Sagan U, after the town in which the camp was located. Here prisoners taught courses in whatever expertise they might possess. Joe taught economics. Only later did he discover that the textbooks he used had been sent by Tufts football coach and economics professor Lew Manly. As Joe explained: “They came through the International Student Aid Fund, and it wasn’t until after the war that I learned of their Tufts origins. By that time it was too late to thank Lew, to my lifelong regret. As sports editor of The Weekly, I had used his football teams as an outlet for my—literally—sophomoric humor, and he never had any reason to feel kindly toward me.” One alum of Sagan U was Lyndon Johnson’s future attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, a young B-17 navigator who in 1945 returned to Princeton University, which gave him credit for his P.O.W. courses. The theater also housed a radio station—KRGY for kriegie, or prisoner—that broadcast through loudspeakers several times a day.
With all this activity, the camp sometimes resembled a college campus with barbed wire around it. Indeed, many British authors have compared German prison camps to “third-rate public schools.” Of course, the camp experience depended on who was in charge and whether the camp was made up of officers or enlisted men. Some were in old castles and forts and others in specially constructed wooden huts surrounded by parallel barbed-wire fences with coils of concertina wire in between. The camps were organized according to the prisoners’ branch of the service, with the responsibility for guarding them falling on the corresponding German one. Captured U.S. airmen, who eventually numbered more than 33,000, were guarded by Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe. The largest of these camps was Stalag Luft III, which would eventually house 10,000 prisoners in five different compounds.
Officers had it easier than enlisted men. While lower ranks were employed in jobs ranging from coal mining to agricultural labor, the Geneva Convention of 1929 stipulated that officers were not to work. Officers, who were generally of college age, therefore had plenty of time on their hands. Not only were recreational opportunities required by the Geneva Convention, but the Germans were anxious to provide diversions from escape and other subversive activities. They encouraged sports, education, and theater. “They’d much rather have you busy doing that than the other things,” recalled Joe. “But of course we did the other things as well.” In keeping with the convention, the Germans also paid the officers a percentage of their pay, half of which went into a communal fund to purchase supplies and services as needed.
Joe’s memory of Stalag Luft III remains surprisingly positive: “It was the best camp, absolutely. It was the closest to what the Geneva Convention envisioned. The Luftwaffe were better. It’s not popular to say, but it came from the top, the fact that Göring was head of the Luftwaffe.” And yet even the Luftwaffe couldn’t protect them after the mass escape in spring 1944, when Hitler ordered that every recaptured prisoner be executed. While the number was reduced to 50, the overall responsibility for the camp was transferred to the Gestapo.
With the new theater complete, Joe began devoting eight hours a day to the stage. No longer overshadowed by the Brits, he and the other Americans were finally free to run their own theater. The change was immediately noted in the shift the Americans made from the British playwrights of the West End to those of Broadway. Their first production was a variety show to which Joe contributed skits as well as acted. Called Strictly from Hunger, it ended with a medley of blackface pieces (then known as “levee scenes”) that included such numbers as “Oh Susannah” and “Deep River.”
Joe made his directorial debut with the second show, Boy Meets Girl, a 1935 Broadway comedy by Sam and Bella Spewak. His college drama experience was now put to use. “I learned the procedure of ‘putting on a play’—from casting, to read-through, to walk-through, to rehearsals, to performance—by observing Doc Balch,” he told me. “I recall his direction of actors, beyond traffic control, as pretty much hands-off. I think that ‘Tell them what you want and get out of the way!’ became my management style, whether it was directing a play, editing a publication, using military rank, or managing a corporate department.” The show was reported in the March 23, 1944, edition of The Tufts Weekly under the headline “Joe Consolmagno, German Prisoner, Tries Hand at American Play Directing Behind Barbed Wire.” Joe also helped organize a board called the Luft Guild to produce plays and run the theater.
Unlike the Royal Air Force fliers, many of whom had prewar theater experience, the Americans were mostly novice actors. “We found a part for anyone who wanted to act,” Joe recalled. Unavoidably, ladies’ parts were played by men. “For female roles we had probably a half dozen or so really good character actors in great demand by all the directors—an ingenue, a couple of leading ladies, and some convincing matrons,” Joe said. “There was also a Carmen Miranda who could never act, but he always brought the house down with his specialty.” While the male voice always came as a shock at first, it was “quickly submerged by the play action and the female cadence.”
The South Compound theater offered a mix of drama, comedy, farce, and variety shows, for which there was no shortage of scripts. “We had an extensive library provided through neutral international agencies, and we tediously typed parts from collections on a decrepit typewriter,” Joe remembered. “Some plays were sent in private parcels. We understood that we produced Kiss and Tell while it was still playing on Broadway.”
Despite the effort that went into every production, plays ran for only four or five performances, just enough to allow each person in the camp to see them. Costumes came from a shop in Berlin, rented with prisoners’ money and transported by a guard. “I signed the parole that they would not be used for escape purposes,” said Joe, adding that the escape committee “had its own tailors who could make better civilian clothes than we could rent.” There was also an excellent orchestra with instruments provided by the International Y.M.C.A.
Of the many productions he directed, Joe’s favorite was Philip Barry’s Philadelphia Story, the play on which the 1940 Katharine Hepburn film was based. “We had good people,” he recalled with satisfaction. “The Hepburn part was played by Jack Mann, a fighter pilot shot down over North Africa. He was our premier leading lady and was in great demand by all our producers.” Bill Geiger, an American Spitfire pilot from the Eagle Squadron, played the Jimmy Stewart role. “Geiger was a perfect matinee-idol type—Barrymore profile, Coleman voice. It was a surprise seeing him at a reunion thirty years later as a gruff, portly physician.”
“As I look back,” Joe reflected, “the most important work we did was the theater, because it was an escape, both working in it and attending the theater. For the people in the theater it was both time consuming and attention consuming. It was even better than reading.” A 1944 article in Theatre Arts went even further, claiming: “Much as theatre is needed by the fighting man, it is in the prison camp that the need becomes an urge almost as strong as hunger itself. Men will go to any length of ingenuity and courage to satisfy it.”
On January 27, 1945, the curtain fell for the last time. Colonel Charles Goodrich, the senior American officer, interrupted a performance of You Can’t Take It With You to announce that the camp was to be evacuated in 30 minutes. With the Russians approaching from the east, Hitler had ordered that all 10,000 prisoners be moved. They left at 11 p.m. in a column that stretched for 20 miles. It was a hellish, week-long journey through freezing snowstorms. Joe remembers it as the low point of his P.O.W. experience. The destination was Moosburg, a massive camp 30 miles north of Munich. Growing to more than a hundred thousand prisoners over the next several months, it made Stalag Luft III seem like a resort. Bedbugs, fleas, and lice forced the prisoners out of the huts and into tents, though the ground was sopping with raw sewage. “The camp resembled a giant hobo village,” Joe would later write. Any theater or other organized entertainment was impossible as prisoners simply held on till the end. It came on April 29, when a tank battalion from Patton’s Third Army finally liberated the camp. The following day, Hitler committed suicide.
As for Joe, he never returned to Medford. He took a job in New York writing for the Journal of Commerce. This led him to the Midwest, where he went to work for Chrysler. He also put together three collections of his own essays and edited several newsletters, including that for the former prisoners of war of Stalag Luft III. And his theatrical career? He received a special commendation for the work he did in the camp and its important contribution to morale. He also wrote two new plays, both of them performed at P.O.W. reunions. One of them was called Tunnel Bierstein and the other, with a fond look back, Strictly From Hunger: A Farce in One Act.
In 1975, Joe took early retirement and moved to Florida with his wife, Pat, with whom he had raised three children. By now he was an avid sailor, out on his Hunter 27 every chance he got. He also traveled. In 1993, he returned to Belgium at the invitation of a radio station commemorating the 50th anniversary of the disastrous raid in which he was shot down. It was a painful visit, but Joe felt that he had an obligation to return. And there were also two trips back to Stalag Luft III, in 1976 and 1995, both in the company of a group of veterans and their wives.
On his last visit, a fellow prisoner made a comment that struck Joe as particularly poignant: “This one guy came up to me, and he was kind of embarrassed, and he said to me, ‘You know, the only thing I remember about you is people laughing.’ And, you know, I was kind of proud of that, because I thought that was part of my job—to make people laugh.” At Stalag Luft III, Joe felt that he had two jobs. The first was writing and decoding secret messages. The second was helping people escape. Not through a tunnel or under the wire but through theater and the power of the imagination.
DAVID GUSS is a professor in the department of anthropology, of which he is chair. His recent work has included an exhibition celebrating the glory days of the old movie theaters in Somerville, Massachusetts.
ALEX NABAUM holds a B.F.A. in illustration from Utah State University and lives in Utah with his wife and four children. His work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Fast Company, and many other publications.