On the 68th anniversary of the Bombing of Dresden, the Colleges asked one of their most esteemed alums to recall his experience as a World War II prisoner of war held in Slaughterhouse Five.
On a bitter December morning in 1944, Private First Class Gifford Doxsee ’46 and his comrades in the 106th Infantry Division trudged over miry fields, weighed down with a weariness brought on by weeks of waiting for the arrival of artillery from the devastated Le Havre.
“It was just us and the cows,” Gifford recalls as an afterthought, as if remembering a vivid dream. He was young, an inexperienced officer 4,000 miles from his mother and father in Freeport, N.Y. and worlds removed from life as a first-year student at Hobart College. “General Bradley knew that we were green troops, so he put us at a quiet sector of the front – which also meant that we had five times as much front to cover.”
Five days later, the German offensive launched an assault in the Ardennes mountain range that has become known by many names, among them The Battle of the Bulge. For four days, Doxsee saw firsthand the chaos of battle before being taken prisoner by the German Army.
Doxsee and his infantry were captured and marched across countless frozen miles to Gerolsteain, Germany, where they were loaded into freight cars bound for Muhlberg, Germany, where a prison camp loomed eight days ahead.”When we got there, we were registered Prisoners of War,” Doxsee says. “Then we had to wait.”
Two weeks later, a starving Doxsee arrived in Dresden on a transport with less than 200 fellow prisoners. Rules of war dictated that the German Army could force captured soldiers to work – so long as they were not laboring over weaponry.
Brought to a desolate building, a concrete monstrosity that had been used to house and butcher livestock prior to the war, Doxsee worked tirelessly for the Axis Powers. Schlachthof Funf – or Slaughterhouse Five – became his home. Imprisoned with Doxsee was another Hobart student, Edward Reginald Crone Jr. ’45, as well as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. who would go on to write one of the 20th century’s most important anti-war novels based on his experiences in Dresden –Slaughterhouse-Five. Crone, who died of what Vonnegut would later call the “thousand mile stare,” was the basis for the novel’s main character, Billy Pilgrim.
Doxsee, Vonnegut and Crone, along with their fellow POWs, were jostled awake on the night of Feb. 13. The city was quiet, but guards seized the prisoners and marched them across town and down twisting stair cases into an underground bunker. “We must have gone down at least two or three stories. I remember that we had been told Dresden had been spared because the Germans wanted the city to be the capital so we weren’t expecting a raid.”
As Doxsee sat, waiting on the cold floor of the underground storage facility, there was silence – silence followed by a tremble. “The whole building shook and plaster from the ceiling started to fall on our heads,” says Doxsee, who is quiet for a moment. “When the guards got us above ground…it was – I hadn’t seen anything like it. The whole city was on fire.”
To this day, the utter destruction of the Bombing of Dresden remains unparalleled. In the two waves of firebombing, 25,000 inhabitants lost their lives, and 15-square-miles of the city center were decimated. Whole rows of buildings engulfed in flames resulted in a firestorm, creating gale winds that pulled in those too close, a gruesome burning death that Doxsee witnessed.
“We watched the city burn for several days, then we had to carry corpses to funeral pyres – sometimes we had to go into air raid shelters.” Fire raid shelters created gruesome tableaus – whole families huddled – men, women and children – waiting to emerge from beneath the ground. “I remember moving bodies and an arm or a leg would break off – it was like carrying brittle wood.”
“From the very first moment, the human psyche is quick to adapt – you had to remember that it was our airmen who were dropping the bombs and these were the bodies of the enemy,” Doxsee explains. “If the bodies had been my relatives, the task would have been very different.”
Months of digging through remains for bodies and working to clean the fallen city didn’t come to an end until the war was breathing its final sighs. In the middle of April 1945, the prisoners at Dresden were evacuated under fear that the city would be shelled in further Allied advances.
The men walked for two days, stopping in the town of Hellendorf near the Czechoslovakia border. Two weeks passed with little to eat. Grass and dandelions helped to keep Doxsee alive until the arrival of Allied troops finally freed the prisoners of their torment.
Days later, Doxsee recalls finding a bicycle and joining a fellow prisoner of war in returning to Dresden. What they found as they peddled around the west side of the city was a space unrecognizable; a void filled with rubble and hardly a standing structure with no trace of life.
It was a quiet return to the world for Doxsee and his comrades. “On May 8, not one of us had any idea that the Germans had surrendered. Across the sea, Americans were celebrating, but it wasn’t until the next day that we realized the war was really over.”
From an American hospital in France, Doxsee wrote his mother to let her know he was alive; it was Mother’s Day.
It was 38 years before Doxsee returned to the place that had been his home and prison, and Dresden was much changed. In the process of reconstruction, it was a depressing urban space shrouded in Soviet utilitarian style, a drab and depressing place that Doxsee says was nothing like he remembered.
It wasn’t until 1999 that Doxsee found himself in Germany again – hosted by a German family – that he saw a glimpse of the picturesque Dresden that had been suffocated all of those years ago. “After reunification, it was totally different; it had been repainted, made beautiful. It was a wonderful experience. I saw the city through the eyes of Germans – think about that!”
In all of those years between his escape from what was a hell on earth to his return to a tranquil, still recovering city – Doxsee rebuilt his own life. He returned to college, earning a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, and a master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard University. He went on to become a professor of history at Ohio University, educating students for 25 years. And today, Doxsee continues to share his story with young students and veterans groups across the country.
Vonnegut’s own response to his experience in the Dresden Bombings came in the form of the novel Slaughterhouse-Five. A prolific writer in his post-war years, Vonnegut also served as a professor at Smith College, and received his honorary degree from Hobart and William Smith in 1974.
Crone’s tale is considerably more heart-breaking. The shy, young man – who had hoped to use his time at Hobart to become an Episcopal minister – died in Dresden. Refusing food and water, Crone succumbed to what has been described as “general despair.” After a five-year search for his remains following the war, his parents were able to bring him home to be buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, N.Y. Every Memorial Day until his own death, Vonnegut sent flowers to be placed on Crone’s grave.