Friday, January 18, 2008

Wonderful item in Des Moines paper

Carlson: 'Slaughterhouse' man returned to quiet D.M. life


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There's a reference in Kurt Vonnegut's classic book "Slaughterhouse-Five" to some American soldiers loading a fellow prisoner of war into a wheelbarrow and hauling him through the streets of Dresden, Germany.

They manage to convince German guards the man is sick. In truth, "he got into a lot of wine" and was drunk. Their deception saves the man from almost certain execution.

Vonnegut's book was a work of fiction based on fact. The author, who died in April, was one of the American soldiers being held in Dresden in 1945. They were "green," mostly untrained and were captured during the Battle of the Bulge.

Held with Vonnegut was Bob Allen, the man pushing the wheelbarrow, who lived most of his life in Des Moines with little fame or acknowledgment of his military service.

"A lot of people who knew Dad for years really didn't know about what happened and that he was part of that book," said Bob's son, Jerry Allen of Minneapolis. "He was like so many other veterans of World War II. They went through terrible times in the war, came home, raised their families and never talked about the experience."

Jerry thinks people in Iowa should know about his dad.

"He died on Jan. 4 at the age of 91," Jerry said. "He didn't open up and say much for probably 40 years. I was amazed at what I heard."

A good part of Bob's story came out eight years ago, when Jerry, and his wife and daughter joined Bob on a trip to Dresden. It was the old soldier's first and only time to revisit the scene of the horror.

Historians still argue about the February 1945 Allied bombing raids that burned much of Dresden. Critics say the city was of no military value and there was no need for the three days and nights of what was known as a firebombing. Defenders say it was necessary to convince German leaders their cause was hopeless.

Tens of thousands of civilians died. Among them were hundreds of American prisoners of war.

Bob, Vonnegut and the other prisoners were held deep in the underground meat locker of a livestock slaughtering facility - Slaughterhouse Five. The fact they were so far below ground is likely why they survived the relentless bombing that incinerated much of the center of the city.

It wasn't long before some of the soldiers wondered if it might have been better to have died in the fires.

The starving men were forced by their guards to crawl through the rubble and remove the charred bodies.

Bob Hays of Truro, commander of Amvets Post 2 in Des Moines where Bob Allen was a member, said he heard the stories.

"Bob talked about how the American soldiers had to go into the buildings and bring out the dead and stack them up," Hays said.

"They'd stack them up in piles of 500 and then burn them. There was nothing else to do with all the bodies. Bob told me he couldn't get the image out of his head, and he couldn't talk about it for a very long time."

Said Jerry: "The stories Dad told were gruesome. Almost indescribable. I know it was hard for him. He weighed about 190 pounds when he enlisted. He weighed about 130 when he got out of Dresden."

Bob came home to Iowa, raised his family in a one-story house at 56th and University and worked as a truck driver and freight manager at H&W Motor Express. He talked to his pals at the Amvets post and loved playing cribbage. In fact, he was runner-up in the cribbage tournament at the Iowa State Fair at the age of 88.

The Allen family trip to Dresden in 2000 brought back more memories. The horror, certainly. A guard who showed a kindness. That Christmas in 1944 when Bob's only gift was a single cigarette. Saving the life of the drunken soldier in the wheelbarrow.

"Dad was animated on that trip and really opened up," Jerry said. "He talked about knowing Kurt Vonnegut and seeing him at reunions over the years. The funny thing is, I don't know that he ever read 'Slaughterhouse-Five.' Maybe he couldn't bring himself to do it."