Hillenbrand’s Unbroken opens eyes to capacity for man’s good, evil

I spent several Tuesdays with a man named Karl Baumann back in 1998 learning about the World War II prisoner of war camp out near Sherando Lake. I’d considered myself a student of history, but I’d never known about Stateside POW camps until visiting the Waynesboro Heritage Museum one summer day and asking an innocent question about a stained-glass window on display that I was told had come from Camp Lyndhurst.

After doing some research, I found out that Baumann, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 85, had been a prisoner at the camp, and after the war had efforted for six years to return to where he had been held as a prisoner and eventually settled a few miles away in Stuarts Draft. I called Baumann out of the blue to ask him if he’d let me interview him for a story on the camp and his experiences there. Reluctant to talk on the record at first, he invited me to his home to try to learn more about what I was planning to write. The first meeting led to a second, and it was toward the end of our fourth sitdown that Baumann asked if I wanted to see the camp.

“It’s … still here?” I asked him. It was, he said, and we piled into his minivan for a drive back into time. We got out of the van behind a small church on the road to Sherando Lake, climbed a gate telling us that we were about to enter a national forest, and walked about a mile as clouds that had been in the distance when we left moved overhead and began to open with a warm shower.

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We were out in the middle of nowhere, to my reckoning, but about 10 minutes into our walk Baumann stopped cold. “We’re here,” he said, then veered off into the woods to point out the foundations of buildings that had stood where we now were standing. “This was the barbershop,” he said, pointing at one foundation. Not too far away I saw a building still standing that Baumann said had served as the truck depot.

Prisoners spent their days working on farms in Augusta County. Baumann told me about his days working and getting breaks complete with fresh milk and food from farmers who were grateful for their labor and gracious in their treatment of the prisoners considering the tenor of the times. Baumann had been captured after his U-boat was sunk in the aftermath of the D-Day invasion in June 1944. The German military machine was imploding upon itself; that much was obvious to Baumann, who told me that he considered himself “lucky” to have been captured and sent to America for the end of the war.

This was everything that I knew about POWs in World War II until I read Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand’s account of the amazing survival story of former Olympic track star Louie Zamperini, whose B-24 crashed into the Pacific in 1943. Zamperini and fellow airman Allen Phillips were plucked out of the water by the Japanese after 47 days floating on a life raft and sent to a succession of POW camps, where they endured the unimaginable. Daily beatings, forced labor and starvation were the easy parts; the degradation and promise that they would be executed along with their fellow POWs if the Allies got to the point where they were about to win the war were constant reminders that what they thought were to be their last days on earth were ever fleeting.

That Zamperini, Phillips and hundreds of thousands of other POWs survived the hell of Japanese POW camps is a testament to their wills and also to a great degree their dumb luck – but even the luck of the draw in terms of their survival was a curse for many, including Zamperini, whose running career was finished due to injuries sustained while in captivity, and sunk for several years into depression and fits of flashbacks, rage and an alcoholism that threatened the breakup of his marriage and threatened his life.

Like Karl Baumann, Zamperini was consumed postwar with thoughts of returning to the place where he had been held prisoner, but unlike Baumann it wasn’t because he wanted to settle there. Zamperini’s mission to Japan was to track down and kill his chief tormentor, a camp administrator known to the POWs as The Bird.

A visit to a Billy Graham crusade led to Zamperini’s deliverance from his postwar post-traumatic stress disorder, and he later returned to Japan to visit former POW guards to tell them that he had forgiven them, and later he was asked to carry the Olympic torch when the Winter Olympics were held in Japan in 1998.

Reading about Zamperini took me back to my Tuesdays with Karl Baumann, whose experiences as a POW were so very different and yet, I now realize, led to some of the same results afterward. Zamperini turned the focus that had led him to the Olympics and had many in the track-and-field know speculating before the war that he would become history’s first sub-four-minute miler to launching a camp for troubled boys in his native Southern California. Baumann, on the other side of the continent, became an associate church pastor who in his last days still made it a point to read his Bible several times a day.

It’s a credit to the America of the 1940s that we made it a point to treat people like Karl Baumann so well in captivity that they’d want to spend the rest of their days here. it’s also a bit bothersome to think that the America of the present day has seemed to stray from those ideals. I want to believe that it’s still a healthy leap from Gitmo and Abu Ghraib to The Bird in Unbroken, but then … we really have no business being anywhere in that conversation, if you ask me.

Review by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at freepress2@ntelos.net.

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