H/T Beyond The Band Of  Brothers.

R.I.P.Kurt Vonnegut   November 11 1922-April 11 2007

Vonnegut’s seminal literary work was based on his personal experience in WWII.

Kurt Vonnegut and the real Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922-2007) was born in Indianapolis to a German-American family of architects who deliberately lost their German identity due to anti-German sentiments in the wake of World War I. Feeling rootless as a child, Vonnegut felt that it was the family’s African-American cook and housekeeper who raised him and gave him moral values. Being the smallest of three children, he soon learned that being funny was the only way not to be constantly interrupted by his siblings.
Kurt Vonnegut in high school
He found passion for writing at an early age, becoming co-editor of his high school paper. His father and brother who was a chemist, however, wanted him to adopt a more respectable career in life. He was persuaded to enroll Cornell University in 1940 and study biochemistry, but didn’t do well academically. As a staff writer, later the editor at the university newspaper, he argued for pacifism and an anti-interventionist policy in various articles. He was in ROTC for a while but lost his position due to an irreverent article titled We Impress Life Magazine with Our Efficient Role in National Defense in which he claimed that ROTC boys didn’t know what they were doing. Typical of his acerbic wit, an earlier article proposed that zoologists are just as ready for military service as chemical engineers: “Up in the front lines our commanding officer will say ‘Vontegal . . . what the hell kind of butterfly is that,’ and we’ll be the only man in the trench that can tell him. That’s the sort of thing that wins wars!”
Kurt Vonnegut (right) with his brother, Bernard
Dropping out of university, Vonnegut enlisted in the Army. He was placed in the Army Specialized Training Program, which was supposed to give him a degree and commission as a junior officer with technical skills. The tides of war, however, were turning and by 1944 the Army needed fresh riflemen more than it needed fresh officers, so the program was canceled and Vonnegut was shipped to Europe.
Vonnegut in the U.S. Army
In December 1944, he was serving as an intelligence scout with the 106th Infantry Division along the Siegfried line, when the Allies were caught unawares by the last German breakout attempt in the west: the Battle of the Bulge. On December 19, with the division low on supplies and no sign of reinforcements, a six-man patrol including Vonnegut were sent out on a scouting mission – not to find the enemy, but to locate their own artillery. The patrol found fifty other American soldiers and came under German attack soon after. “The Germans could see us,” Vonnegut later recalled, “because they were talking to us through a loudspeaker. They told us our situation was hopeless, and so on. That was when we fixed bayonets. It was nice there for a few minutes. Then the Germans started firing eighty-eight millimeter shells. The shells burst in the treetops right over us. Those were very loud bangs right over our heads. We were showered with splintered steel. Some people got hit. Then the Germans told us again to come out. We didn’t yell ‘nuts’ or anything like that. We said, ‘Okay,’ and ‘Take it easy,’ and so on.”
American POWs in the Battle of the Bulge
The POWs were marched 60 miles and locked up in railway boxcars for several days without food, water, heating or enough space for everyone to lie down. On Christmas Eve, British planes bombed the unmarked trains, killing about 150 men. The survivors were eventually transported to a work camp in Dresden. Vonnegut and many of his comrades were housed in a large, partially underground slaughterhouse complex, in a building formerly used to store pigs slated for butchering, marked with a large “5.” The Germans called the building Schlachthof Fünf: “Slaughterhouse Five.”
Current photo of a building that used to be part of the
slaughterhouse complex housing the POWs
On February 13, 1945, Dresden became the target of a devastating 3-day Allied firebombing campaign. The firestorm raging across the city killed some 25,000 people, mostly civilians, in a city with no significant military targets. Some were burned alive, other asphyxiated when the fires drew in all the oxygen, while some died under collapsed buildings. Vonnegut and the other prisoners were locked up in a subterranean meat locker, knowing that something was happening but unaware of the details. When they finally emerged, the city they were forced to work in was gone.
Bodies piled high in Dresden after the bombing
The prisoners were put to work excavating bodies from the rubble but the corpses started rotting and spreading disease in a few days. At this point, orders were changed: the POWs were to enter collapsed buildings, remove any valuables found on the dead, then move out so soldiers could burn the bodies with flamethrowers where they were. With Allied forces drawing close, the American POWs were moved to the Czechoslovakian border and eventually abandoned by their guards. Vonnegut and some of his friends stole a horse and a wagon and went traveling and looting in the war-torn countryside until they were picked up by the Russians and returned to American lines in May.
Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut received the Purple Heart and was discharged from the Army. He married his childhood love and went on to become one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century. In 1967 he returned to Dresden as a well-known writer and found many buildings still in ruins. Two years later, his acclaimed novel Slaughterhouse-Five, heavily fictionalized but based on his experiences as a POW in the city and a survivor of the firebombing, was published and rocketed him to fame.

You can learn more about the great Americans who fought in WWII on our various historical tours scheduled for 2018 and 2019 all across the ETO.

As a document of special interest, here is Kurt Vonnegut’s first letter home to his family after he escaped from German captivity, with a few more details of his experience as a prisoner.
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