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For the week of April 4 through April 10, 2001

Hal Cook remembers

POW experiences recounted for Hollywood film

"It was a trip back into the horror and misery [caused when] the war sent some half million Russians, Poles, French, British and Americans into the terrible circumstances of these Wehrmacht Sagan (German Army) Camps, which were worse by far than Stalag Luft III run by the Luftwaffe."

Hal Cook, World War II POW and military adviser for Hart’s War.

Express Staff Writer

A recent journey took Hal Cook overseas and back in time to the most significant and painful ordeal of his life.

Hal Cook, right, a military adviser for the filming of Hart’s War, meets with producer David Ladd on the film set in Germany.

A World War II prisoner of war, Cook was one of two military advisors for the shooting of the movie, Hart’s War, in Prague this winter.

"My involvement in the movie was to bring Hollywood and reality together," Cook, 76, wrote in a synopsis of his movie set duties and visit to what was once the heart of Nazi Germany.

The movie, staring Wood River Valley resident Bruce Willis, Terrence Howard and Colin Farrell, is based on a book by the same name that was written by John Ketzenbach, whose father was held captive alongside Cook at Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp near the Polish/German border for Allied forces officers. Cook said the film will accurately portray the pain World War II POWs experienced as well as portray an accurately laid out prisoner camp, though the movie’s plot and characters are largely fictional.

The movie is set in the fictional Nazi concentration camp Stalag Luft XIII. There, Tommy Hart (Farrell), a Harvard law student before enlisting, must defend an African-American Tuskegee airman (Howard), accused of murder, in a camp trial held by his fellow American prisoners.

But Cook’s return visit as military advisor was a significant, fascinating and sad experience, beyond a revival of ordeals now long in his past, he said in an interview at his Ketchum home last week.

"This was my first trip back [to Stalag Luft III]—my trip back in time. The last time there was that night of January 30, 1945, when with two hours notice, the German Luftwaffe (air force) marched us—all 15,000 American, British and Commonwealth Air Force officers—out into a raging subzero blizzard as Russian forces smashed into Silesia," a region of southwest Poland near the camp in which he was held captive.

The forced march in the frigid winter was prompted by German fears that the Russians would soon liberate the captives held at Stalag Luft III, Cook suspects.

Cook’s odyssey as a POW began when, as navigator for a U.S. B-24 bomber, he was shot down near Wiener Neustadt, Austria, in May 1944. Four of his 10 fellow crewmen died before the plane hit the ground. That day, the 36 bombers with which he flew were attacked by 70 Nazi warplanes, Cook said he later learned, and American losses were devastating.

After the crash, Cook, then 19, wandered enemy territory for five days before being captured by Nazi troops in rural Austria.

"The game was up," he remembers, and when a handful of dog tags were thrown at him, he knew his crew "was a major casualty."

After several trying weeks of interrogation and brutality, he was taken to Stalag Luft III, "the camp that took my youth, robbed me of my freedom, but which in return provided a manhood which I would not have without it," where he spent the next nine months of his life. The camp consisted of five compounds, each containing about 2,000 men.

The camp was surrounded by fences and barbed wire and was heavily guarded, though "life in the camp wasn’t all that bad."

"We were certainly the best off of the prisoners in Germany," he said, remembering meat, biscuits, cigarettes, raw potatoes and schwartz brot (black bread), which captives theorized was made of sawdust.

Cook recalls of the schwartz brot: "At first I couldn’t eat it, but by the end of the war, it was like cake."

All that remains from Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp near the Polish/German border, is the red-brick headquaters building for the commandant.

The compounds weren’t insulated and were very cold in winter. Quarters were tight, with 18 men crammed into a room on stacked bunks. Three escape tunnels were attempted at Stalag Luft III—labeled Tom, Dick and Harry by their diggers—though only one, Harry, was successful. Out of Harry crawled 76 British officers, who were later captured and summarily executed.

This digging at Stalag Luft III was the topic of the well-known 1960s Hollywood production, The Great Escape.

By the end of 1944, there were 15,000 officers in the camp when they were ordered to march out before the advancing Russians

"That was the worst experience I had," Cook said. "We marched four days in the brutal cold. Four hundred men, including Germans, died.

"I remember walking along crying. At one point, I remember getting mad and yelling out, [to the Germans], ‘You’re not going to kill me like this.’ "

After the march, the captives were put into railroad box cars and taken to Dresden, "where all I remember are troops and equipment moving east to fight the Russians."

"You could kneel or scrunch up," but not sit in the box cars, Cook remembers of the claustrophobic train ride to Dresden. The captives urinated, defecated and threw up through a hole in the box car’s floor boards, and they were without water or food for several days.

The captives were moved several times by train, but in March of 1945, on a march out of Nurnberg, Cook initiated his own great escape.

As the captives were marched toward Bavaria, Cook took advantage of the sparse numbers of German soldiers—about one to 100 prisoners—attending the 20-mile-long line of POWs, and trickled to the end of the line, where he was left behind.

He began traveling alone and at night south toward Switzerland, where the promise of freedom egged him on. He swam small rivers to avoid bridges, which were patrolled, and eventually made it to the border, on the east side of the Rhine River. It was over a 100- mile trek.

After crawling through barbed wire fences, "but ripped up pretty badly," he swam the cold, spring waters of the Rhine and entered Switzerland.

"I don’t remember sleeping, but I was tired and in shock."

A passing postman eventually took him—"I must have looked like hell froze over"—to a small house, where he was fed and rested.

"I remember how good it was to drink something warm."

After stops in Geneva, the U.S. Camp Lucky Strike in France, and Portsmouth, England, he was boated to New York City, where he arrived on May 29, 1945, his 21st birthday.

Hal Cook and his wife, Jeanne, pose on the film set for Hart’s War in Germany.

He now reminisces about his recent return visit, of which a stop at the site of what used to be Stalag Luft III was a part.

"It was a trip back into the horror and misery [caused when] the war sent some half million Russians, Poles, French, British and Americans into the terrible circumstances of these Wehrmacht Sagan (German Army) Camps, which were worse by far than Stalag Luft III run by the Luftwaffe.

"I shed tears for what is now gone, which was such an event in my life. But the camp gave me something in return: love of country, an appreciation of hunger and hardship and, on the winter march, endurance beyond what I ever thought was within me.

"I learned how to be hungry, how to be cold, how to miss country, how to miss mother, how to miss girlfriend. That gives you a humility in life that you don’t get anywhere else.

"I’m stronger now as a human being, because of my POW experiences, than had I flown my 50 missions and come home."

Cook said the return to Stalag Luft III was a sad return, not because of the suffering he experienced there, but because all that remains are graveyards, overgrown camp areas, a few foundations, the red brick German commandant’s headquarters and some muddy roads that were "so busy 57 years ago." They are tombstones to trials men lived through—and didn’t live through.

"It’s really a recognition that my generation is just about gone. There’s a finality there. I guess it’s like going home years after leaving a house you have memories in, and it’s gone. It’s something that left such a mark on me, and it’s not there."

But most of all, he said, the camp helped him to realize and be thankful for his now-happy life filled with family, love and material things, things "so missing in that drab place that now exists only as a memory, a ghost of fear, humiliation and courage."

Hart’s War, due out in December, should capture a lot of the pain Nazi POWs experienced, Cook said, and many of his own suggestions were incorporated into the script, sets and acting.

"It’s going to be a very good movie. They’ve done everything to make this authentic. These are very dedicated people, and they work so hard."

In a recent e-mail, Hart’s War director Gregory Hoblit thanked Cook for his contribution toward authenticating the Hollywood script, set and acting of partially real events:

"At the end of the day, I hope we make a movie in Hart’s War that will properly portray and honor you and your fellow WWII prisoners and soldiers, and that it will be something for all of us to be proud of. That is my goal. That is my hope."


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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.