Sixty-five years ago today, Kurt Vonnegut was captured by the Germans, setting in motion the experience that would eventually morph into his greatest novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Two years ago today, I had the privilege of talking with the late Bob Kelton, who shared that experience with him.
My friend, Joan, had mentioned Bob in the past; he had lived with his family in the neighborhood where she grew up up, in Danville, Illinois. I’m not sure how it came up that he’d been captured with Vonnegut—maybe in the course of conversation about Vonnegut’s death, which had occurred earlier that year. In any case, I’m fascinated by the intersection of reality and fiction and asked Joan if she thought he might be willing to talk to me about what he remembered from that time. He kindly said, yes—and invited us to his home in Champaign, Illinois, where he told us the story.
A student in chemical engineering when the war started, Bob had been selected to receive training in chemical warfare at the University of Tennessee—until, as he said, “…they decided, we don’t really need college graduates, we need fresh cannon fodder. That’s you!”
He was sent to Camp Atterbury in Indianapolis for thirteen weeks of training before he would be shipped out as a buck private in the infantry. That’s where he met Kurt Vonnegut, who showed him around town and introduced him to his friends. There were six of them who hung out together—Vonnegut a little less so because Indianapolis was his home, and he had a girlfriend there at the time. They arrived in Belgium together on December 16, at the beginning of what would come to be called “The Battle of the Bulge.” All six were assigned to intelligence reconnaissance, which meant they would go ahead of the front line to find out where the enemy was, what they were doing, and how many there were.
“We were captured running our first patrol,” Bob said. “We came to an opening about one-hundred yards long. We were in the woods and there were woods on the other side. My best friend, Bill Sieber, started to go across and got about halfway, when there was a shot. Bill dropped to the ground and called, ‘Get the medics. I’ve been hit.’”
If they went into the clearing, they knew they’d be shot by the Germans. Even if they escaped, the Germans would follow them. So they went back to camp and asked for a medic. The colonel said, no. They were going to surrender in moments, they had to turn in their weapons.
“There we were,” Bob said. “Our best friend had been shot, we didn’t know how seriously, and we couldn’t go back. I’ve thought about that ever since then. We never found out what happened to him.”
“There’s that moment in the book when Billy Pilgrim is standing in the clearing and the Germans shoot at him,” I said. “He’s paralyzed. Then Roland Weary grabs him and saves his life. It’s exactly like the scene you described.
“[Kurt] played that a little different,” Bob said.
The capture was different, too. In the book, it’s more…personal. Roland Weary is beating up Billy Pilgrim, the two of them having been ditched by the other members of their patrol, and five German soldiers appear, with a police dog on a leash,
In fact, 8,000 Americans were captured at once. Kelton, Vonnegut and the others were part of a group of 150 whom the Germans marched eastward for several days, until they reached the railroad tracks. “They put us on what they called ’40 & 8’ boxcars—they were made to hold forty men or 8 horses," Bob said "They put sixty of us in one. There wasn’t room to lay down. They traveled us by night, not by day because we could have been seen. We traveled until we came close to the Dresden area, then they marshaled us into that location. We had to stand outside for six or seven hours when we got there. They weren’t prepared to interrogate 8,000 men. That’s how we ended up with the frozen hands and feet, the frostbite. Finally we got in. Name, rank, serial number—that was about it. We were assigned to walk to Dresden, that same group of 150 or so, where we got into a barracks. It was on a hill, on the very outskirts of Dresden.
“So the part about being in the slaughterhouse was made up?” I asked.
“Yes and no. We went into the slaughterhouse, but later—to help out where we could help out. There was meat in there. With the fire from the bombing, some was cooked, so we just grabbed some of the meat and ate it. But we weren’t incarcerated there. We were in the barracks. After a short time there, they put us to work in this malt factory, where there were a few older ladies who befriended us and would give us something extra.”
“That sugary malt syrup, in the book,” I said.
“We’d get a spoon of it,” Bob said.
“And what about the British? In the book, they had all that food. There was that party. And the crazy theater production.”
They didn’t have that much food; there was no party, no theater production. “But they had more Red Cross packages than we had—and they shared it,” Bob said. “Somehow they were able to put together a crystal radio set, and they could get the BBC on it. So they kept track of what was going on in the war and passed that on to us.”
The Americans worked in the malt factory till after the bombing, then guards marched them into Dresden to help clean up the rubble in the streets. “Almost everything was leveled,” Bob said. “They wanted to make the streets passable, so we had the job of going in with shovels and wheelbarrows. Hard physical labor—and our diet was a bowl of soup and a piece of bread for the day.”
One day, they were walked through a bank vault—one guard at the front, one at the back. “We came to large area with safety deposit boxes,” Bob said. “I glanced over and saw that they were open. Darn fool that I was, I looked. There were watches and rings. I thought, well, the guards are going to get these, the people who own them are not going to get them back. So I reached in and grabbed a whole bunch of stuff and put it in my pocket.”
“The diamond ring!” I said. “In the book, Billy Pilgrim’s wife has a diamond ring that he found in the pocket of his overcoat.”
Kelton smiled. “When we went back they put us in an area, the guards on the periphery. We sat down on the ground and I dumped the stuff out of my pocket. We split it up. My trousers had a big fly, so I pulled the threads and stuck my share in there.
“[Later] I sold one of the rings for a peck of potatoes. I traded a pearl and some flanking diamonds [from another ring] for a Mowitzer pistol.”
Near the end of the war, Kelton, Vonnegut and the others were moved to Pilson, Czechoslovakia, where they were housed on the second floor of a gasthaus. They thought about trying to escape, but one of the older, decent guards caught wind of their plans. “Don’t try to walk out of here,” he said. “The war’s going to end pretty soon, but if you walk out now, they’ll shoot you.”
“We slept on hay,” Bob said. “We’d go out in the field and find some dandelion greens and eat them. We found that sometimes, if we sneaked into a house with a cellar there’d be a jar of canned goods or something we could get. When the S.S. found out about it, they marched to where we were staying that night and took one of the individuals and told him to dig a hole. After he dug the hole, they shot him and pushed him into it.”
“It’s the teapot,” I said. In the book, Billy Pilgrim keeps talking about the guy who was killed for a teapot. It feels exactly the same. It’s just…weirder.
“Yep,” Bob said. “That’s where that came from.”
There is a mystery at the center of every good book, of course. Still it is so interesting to discover fragments of reality that the imagination uses to create something realer, richer, more meaningful than whatever the whole real thing was. In this case, also a cautionary tale which should be required reading for any person, anywhere who holds the power to send young people off to war.
Rest in peace, Bob. Thanks for telling me your story.