BATH TWP.: The images of the German city of Dresden after the Allied firebombing in February 1945 are still vivid in the mind of 87-year-old Gerald “Jerry” Lamb.
As an American prisoner of war, Lamb went out on numerous work details in the burning city to remove dead bodies.
“It was like War of the Worlds,” said Lamb, a Cleveland native who has lived in Bath Township for 40 years.
Lamb was kept in Slaughterhouse Five, a place where German merchants cut up meat in stalls before the war.
The makeshift prison was made famous in the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, who was a POW there along with Lamb.
“Buildings were on fire and were caving in ... and everything was collapsing,” Lamb said.
There are historical accounts that put the number of those killed in the February 1945 bombings at 135,000 people.
Lamb grew up during the Great Depression in Cleveland. He says the hard-scrabble life of those times helped prepare him for the horrors of war.
After graduating from John Hay High School, Lamb entered the Army in early 1944.
Eventually, he was assigned to the 106th Infantry Division and arrived in Scotland on his 19th birthday in October 1944. He landed in France in December and headed to the front in Belgium.
Several days before Christmas, at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, his unit surrendered to German forces.
“Then they started marching us,” Lamb recalled. “That’s when you started seeing the real horrors of what was going on. They marched us down a ravine. The ditch was running with blood.”
After being put in boxcars, the POWs were shipped without food or water for a week by train to a German POW camp.
There, Lamb said a British soldier suggested he volunteer to go with a group of 150 soldiers on a work detail. He was then herded onto another boxcar destined for Dresden.
“Dresden was beautiful,” he said. “It had parks and statues and hospitals.”
Lamb said German troops marched him and the others into a building that was called Slaughterhouse Five.
“In the back were two buildings they had prepared for us with barracks,” he said.
Before long, he said, leaflets dropped by American planes began falling from the sky. They were written in German,
“We know you are using Dresden which we have not bombed because it is a hospital area for the wounded but you are storing vital parts for airplanes and tanks and if you don’t cease and desist, we will bomb you,” is Lamb’s recollection of what the leaflets said.
He and other POWs were in their barracks later when air raid sirens went off.
“Soon you could hear bombs going off,” he said.
When the bombing stopped, Lamb and others were sent out into the city to remove the dead.
“Where a person might have been, there was nothing but a black spot on the ground,” he said.
One vivid memory is what they found inside a train station.
“It had burned and caved in,” he said. “There was a Red Cross room where the children went. We went to that room. Kids and nurses were dead. We had to carry all those kids and throw them onto trucks.”
In early April, Lamb and two others escaped and for 10 days were on the run across the German countryside. They ran into Russian troops who directed them to the American troops.
The war ended shortly after that and he was sent home.
He has a full VA disability for frostbite he suffered on his feet and for psychological trauma.
“It seems in the twilight, between wake and being asleep, things sort of come back to you,” Lamb said. “You don’t plan on it or think about it, but suddenly you are back in a different time or space.”
In war, he said, “you are always living on the edge between life and death. You didn’t know between this hour and the next if you were going to make it.”
About 20 of Lamb’s stories are included in a 2008 book about Dresden called Shadows of Slaughterhouse Five: Recollections and Reflections of the Ex-POWs of Schlachthof Fünf, Dresden, Germany. It is written by Ervin E. Szpek Jr. and Frank J. Idzikowski and edited by Heidi M. Szpek.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at email@example.com.