by BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Mike Kessinger came by his abiding respect for Prisoners of War and Missing in Action soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines honestly. His father, Staff Sgt. Leonard H. Kessinger, survived nearly a year and one-half as a POW in the notorious Stalag XVII-B German prisoner of war camp. The experience changed his life.
“We didn’t think of prisoners of war and those missing in action in the same way during World War II as we have since the Vietnam War,” Kessinger, 67, a U.S. Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War era said. His dad was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and he followed his father’s footsteps in that respect too. “The Vietnam War changed the way we look at in a lot of things.”
S. Sgt. Leonard Kessinger, who grew up in Camp Creek and graduated from Spanishburg High School, was the ball turret gunner on the B-17 bomber, “The Texas Longhorn.” The crew was on its 16th bombing mission on Dec. 13, 1943, heading to Hamburg, Germany when it was hit by flak between the No. 3 and No. 4 engines.
“Seven of the crew members were able to bail out before the plane exploded,” Kessinger said. “The pilot, co-pilot and bombardier were all killed in the explosion. All seven members of the crew were captured and taken to Stalag XVII-B.”
For the next 17 months, the Texas Longhorn POWs survived on soup that they drank from cans the prisoners had fashioned into cups and bread that was made of a combination of flour and sawdust to make it go further. S. Sgt. Leonard Kessinger kept a diary of his wartime experiences and the simple pleasures that he missed during his imprisonment.
“When he was at the airfield in England, he wrote that the Army Air Corps served powdered eggs on regular days, but served the airmen real eggs on the mornings when they were flying a mission,” Kessinger said. “He noted that he had real eggs on the morning of Dec. 13, 1943, and didn’t have real eggs again until May 5, 1945 after he was liberated.”
Scores of bombers were shot down during the Allied bombing campaign against the German war machine’s factories and production facilities. Kessinger said that early in the campaign, crews carried sidearms with them, but most of them were either killed immediately by enemy forces or civilians who captured them. The seven survivors of the Texas Longhorn were unarmed, and were taken as prisoners of war.
The POW camps located in the Stalag XVII region were made famous in the 1953 Billy Wilder film, “Stalag 17” staring William Holden. The realities of life in Stalag XVII-B were different from the movie. During one winter, the POWs removed the wooden siding from their barracks to burn in stoves to keep warm.
With millions of men in uniform, the POWs and MIAs of World War II represented a very small minority of the veterans of the war. The German POWs of Stalag XVII-B called themselves “Kriegsgefangenen,” the German term for prisoner of war.
After the war, the “Kriegies” of Stalag XVII-B started holding annual reunions. Like many World War II veterans groups, their numbers have been dwindling. The Stalag XVII-B group held its final reunion in May in St. Louis, Mo., but several of the children of the former POWs — Mike Kessinger included — decided to keep the organization alive. They call themselves the “Kriesgie’s Kids,” and they plan to meet on May 3, 2014, at Andersonville, Ga. The date is the 69th anniversary of their fathers’ liberation. The site is the location of one of the most infamous Confederate prison camps of the American Civil War.
About two months ago, Kessinger started talking with Tony Whitlow, president of the For Those Who Served Museum in the Mercer County War Memorial Building in Princeton, about the possibility of adding a POW/MIA memorial to the Memorial Room at the museum.
“I had attended some reunions through the years, and I noticed that they never failed to set up a small table at the reunions,” Kessinger said. “I talked with Tony, and we decided to set up a table like the ones the Kriegies set up at the reunions.” The POW/MIA Remembrance Table includes an explanatory poem titled “Always a Place for Them” to describe its meaning. The following is the text of the poem.
“A lonely table-for-one sits unoccupied, draped in a white tablecloth. The small table signifies the frailty of prisoners, alone against their oppressors.
“Atop the tables lies a single place setting with a lemon and salt served as the main course. The lemon signifies the bitter fate of POW/MIA’s mission; the salt represents tears of the families that await their return.
“An inverted wine glass illustrates how the missing cannot toast meaningful passages in their lives, while a single red rose represents the blood that may have been shed in sacrifice to the United States.
“A single candle burns, reminiscent of light and hope their lives have in our hearts. It also illuminates the way home, away from captors to the open arms of a grateful nation.” The display is flanked by an American flag.
Kessinger has been working to create a list of the POWs and MIAs of Mercer County to include in the memorial room. “Korea has not been a problem and neither has Vietnam,” Kessinger said. “But with World War II, there were more than 79,000 still listed as MIA. There are still 38 who have never been recovered from the USS West Virginia that was sunk at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 at the start of the war.
“With World War II, the problem is that the POW and MIA listings don’t include the communities where they came from,” Kessinger said. “If we could get some family members of POWs or MIAs to contact us at the museum so we could include their names, it would be a great help for the museum.”
Kessinger said that people can send messages to the museum at thosewhoserved.shutterfly.com or telephone 304- 487-3670. “We’re also hosting an open house (today) on Veterans Day from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., so people can visit the memorial.”
S. Sgt. Leonard Kessinger and his fellow Kriegies were uprooted from Stalag XVII, which was located near Krems, Austria on April 8, 1944 during the Allied advance into Germany. The POWs were forced to march across Austria where they built temporary shelter to house the prisoners. On May 3, 1945, General George Patton’s 13th Armor Division liberated the Stalag XVII POWs.
“The German soldiers were throwing everything off of their uniforms as quickly as they could,” Kessinger said. “Dad picked up a lot of stuff that day. He also managed to save some photos from inside the camp and his diary. All seven of the crewmen from the Texas Longhorn survived.”
Leonard Kessinger went on to serve as president of the national Stalag XVII POW organization. He died at age 86 in 2008, but his son has continued attending conventions and continued in remembering all of those who served even from behind the barbed wire of an enemy POW camp.
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org