Kurt Vonnegut's POW nightmare: Inside the World War II battle that shaped "Slaughterhouse Five"

"Private First Class Vonnegut prepared to die." But when Nazis took him prisoner, he had a very Vonnegut reaction

Published January 2, 2016 5:18PM (EST)

Kurt Vonnegut   (AP)
Kurt Vonnegut (AP)

Excerpt​ed from "The Brothers Vonnegut"

Private First Class Vonnegut prepared to die.

At the bottom of a snowy hollow, he fixed his bayonet and waited, huddled in a group of roughly fifty soldiers. Their unit, the 423rd, had been at battle for three days, since December 16. They’d been lost for most of it. They must be somewhere in Luxembourg, someone said. Now they were surrounded, herded into a small depression in the unfamiliar land. Kurt hunched into his coat—he had a tall man’s habit of hunching—but he couldn’t get warm. That December—1944— was one of the coldest and wettest ever recorded in Europe.

The Germans were shouting at them. Kurt and the other soldiers couldn’t see them, but they could hear accented voices telling the Americans to give up. They were surrounded, the Nazis said. It was useless to resist. The men bunched together, pointing their bayonets out the way soldiers do in the movies. Time slowed down. Kurt had always liked being part of a clan, and here, at the end of the line, the soldiers became almost one being, a big porcupine bristling with steel quills. For a few minutes, it was kind of nice.

He had waded ashore to the European theater less than a month earlier and ground to the front in a truck buffeted by sleet. He was still somewhat in shock. His mother had died of a drug overdose—was it a suicide? an accident?—just before he shipped out. The sadness hung thick over his departure, complicating and deepening his fear. He longed for the feeling that someone loved him, followed his every move with boundless devotion. He hadn’t realized how much he needed that until his mother was gone.

Still, for the first time in his life he felt beyond reproach. No longer a flunking chemistry student or a college dropout, he was where he was supposed to be, a soldier putting his life on the line. He was now the sort of person honored in the grandiose Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at the center of his hometown, Indianapolis. Not even his big brother, Bernard, could say that much. Bernie, the A student, the brilliant scientist, the MIT man like their father. The one who launched the chain of events that landed Kurt here, a pacifist about to be swallowed by war.

The Germans fired on the trees above the soldiers’ heads. Branches and splintered steel rained down. A couple of guys were hit. They might be dead. Twenty-five years later, Kurt would introduce a character named Edgar Derby to the world and describe his experience of this very battle. He would call what rained down on him “the incredible artificial weather that Earthlings sometimes create for other Earthlings when they don’t want those other Earthlings to inhabit Earth any more.”

Come out, the Nazis ordered again. The Americans came out. When he saw the Germans, Kurt couldn’t help but note their white snowsuits. That made so much more sense, he thought, than his absurd army drab. The Americans were always in olive, as if wars were never fought in white places, in white weather.


The battle had started three days earlier at 5:30 a.m., before dawn crept over the frozen landscape of Schnee Eifel, or Snow Mountain. They were manning a lightly defended spot along the old Westwall, a reinforcement ridge the Allies called the Siegfried Line. It was quiet: no one expected much to happen on this front. Then out of the predawn darkness came the attack, and it sounded like the sky falling in. For eighty miles along the Westwall, Allied soldiers woke up to German artillery raining down on them: fourteen-inch shells from railroad guns, the hacking cough and plunk of mortars, the high-pitched whistles of what the Americans called “screaming meemies” but the Germans called Nebelwerfer: fog throwers. The forest along the front was leveled as the Germans fired on trees. Even the Nazis were impressed by their own artillery storm. “A hurricane of iron and fire,” one German major called it.

For nearly an hour, the onslaught pounded the American troops. Then, suddenly, there was an eerie silence. As the soldiers tried to get their bearings, they heard a clank, and then they were lit like stage actors from the east. Through the dense fog, the Germans were flooding them with searchlights—a new intimidation tactic they called “artificial moonlight.” To the battered Allies, it felt as if the Nazis had commandeered control of nature. Finally, out of the white came snow monsters: German infantry.

Something big was happening, but no one knew what. Telephone lines were blasted; whole divisions lost contact with command. Strategists got garbled and patchy reports; some thought the barrage was merely a “spoiling” attack, a futile lashing out by an enemy who knew he was defeated. After all, the war was meant to be winding down. General Eisenhower had a standing bet with the British field marshal Montgomery that Europe would be won by Christmas. It took days before the Allied generals realized that a major offensive was under way and diverted troops to stop it.

In retrospect, it was clearly a mistake to man twenty-five miles of front with one Allied division. But the Germans were outnumbered and out-armed. Why would they launch an offensive? They had only one thing on their side: the Allies called it “Hitler’s weather.”

In war, soldiers fight more than the enemy. They fight topography. They fight time. Most of all, they fight weather. Kublai Khan might have overrun Japan, but a typhoon destroyed half his ships. The Spanish Armada fell to Britain because of storms on the North Sea. Napoleon was especially unlucky in weather: he lost Waterloo because of a rainstorm, and his march on Russia was beaten back not by war craft but by winter.

In World War II, weather mattered more than ever. It was the first war in which airpower would be decisive, and the U.S. Army Air Forces were especially vulnerable to bad weather: cloud cover disrupted bombing runs; snow scrambled radio signals; icing forced planes to land. But weather could waylay the Navy too: the day Kurt woke up to the German attack on the western front, the Third Fleet faced a typhoon in the Pacific. The storm sank three destroyers, wrecked 146 aircraft on carriers, and killed 778 troops, racking up a higher death toll than any Japanese attack. And weather tormented the infantry: rain and snow slowed tanks, troops, and supply lines. Fog could conceal enemy movements.

Weather forecasting had been part of most militaries since the early nineteenth century, but when World War II broke out, the generals realized they needed more meteorologists than ever. Colleges were enlisted to train thousands of weather officers for the new Air Weather Service. MIT, America’s leading meteorology school, established a special program, bumping its enrollment from thirty students to around five hundred. The department head, Sverre Petterssen, left MIT to join General Eisenhower’s meteorology team. He played a key role in the war’s most famous weather suspense story.

During World War I, a new physics-based school of meteorology had arisen in Norway called air mass analysis. Petterssen was Norwegian and a proponent of this scientifically rigorous new approach. When Ike was poised to invade Normandy, Petterssen told him to wait. The skies looked clear, but the upper air situation was unstable. Petterssen told Eisenhower’s team that the weather was likely to turn bad and scuttle the invasion. He based this forecast not just on what he could observe but on the idea that large wind patterns were battling each other high in the sky, atmospheric echoes of the clash of armies below. Such wind patterns are common knowledge today, but in the 1940s not everyone believed that weather was shaped by the huge, invisible air masses that meteorologists had given a warlike name: fronts.

The American meteorologist Irving Krick, who was also on the team, scoffed at Petterssen’s approach. Krick, using the classic forecasting technique—looking at weather maps from the past to determine how the future might shape up—declared that the offensive should go on as planned.

The largest invasion in history hung in the balance as the weathermen argued about the winds. Finally, the chief meteorological officer made the call. D-Day was postponed for twenty-four hours, and indeed the weather turned stormy. The next day looked no better, but Petterssen pointed to the changing barometric pressure as a sign that the weather would improve. There would be a window of opportunity before the next bad day. Gambling on Petterssen’s prediction, General Eisenhower launched the attack.

Now it was the Germans who were using the weather to their advantage. The attack that would come to be called the Battle of the Bulge was planned for December with good reason. Under cover of heavy cold fog, the Germans had amassed 410,000 troops, 1,400 tanks, and 2,600 artillery weapons for the predawn offensive. The weather had slowed the delivery of Allied troops and supplies to the front, and the bitter cold ensured that the Allied infantry, huddled in foxholes and trenches, was distracted by the need to keep warm. Best of all, the heavy cloud cover would keep British and American planes grounded, depriving the Allies of air support. General Alfred Jodl had foreseen it in the detailed operational plan he drew up for the Reichsführer. He called it Herbstnebel: Autumn Fog.


Kurt’s regiment, the 423rd, got the worst of Autumn Fog. Its troops were far enough forward to be on German ground, and before they even realized what had happened, they were cut off. The men of the 423rd, like the entire 106th Division, were green; they had never seen action. Many, like Kurt, had been pulled out of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP)—a combined college and military program that was meant to lead to a degree and an officer’s commission. It was canceled in 1944 because the Army didn’t need more officers; it needed riflemen. Hitler was going to be defeated not by strategists or engineers but by numbers. College boys like Kurt were plucked from classes on thermodynamics, calculus, and mechanical engineering, given a few months’ hasty training in combat skills, and shipped to Europe. Kurt tried to get assigned to public relations, but his efforts failed. His unit, the 106th, was the last American infantry division to be mobilized in World War II. Two-thirds of its troops were single men under the age of twenty-three.

The Schnee Eifel was where these young men were supposed to get “blooded”—to practice their battlefield skills before facing actual combat. Now they were thrust in the middle of the very bloody real thing, and they didn’t know what to do. Kurt’s regiment commander, Colonel Charles Cavender, was told to dig in and hold the Germans back as best he could. He was promised an airdrop of ammunition and supplies. As the Germans moved inexorably forward, the men of the 423rd split into small groups and huddled together like sheep. By nightfall, the sheep were surrounded. For the next two days, they fought as best they could, in small groups or larger ones, while the Germans streamed around them and toward St. Vith.

For three long days, the 423rd and its sister regiment, the 424th, tried to hold their ground, like ants clinging to a boulder in a rising flood. By the morning of December 19, hundreds of men from the 106th were dead or wounded. The promised airdrops weren’t coming, and there was no sign of reinforcements either. Colonel Cavender sent six of his men out to reconnoiter. One of them was Kurt. They weren’t looking for the enemy; they were looking for their own artillery. Wandering the snowy hills, the six men found about fifty more Americans. And then the Germans found them.

The Americans surrendered as they were taught: they dismantled their weapons and threw them into the snow. Coming out of their gully, they said things like “take it easy” and “don’t shoot.” They wanted to go on living if they possibly could. Kurt knew a little German; his German American parents spoke it, and he’d had two years of it in high school. He tried out a few words. The Germans asked him if he was of German ancestry. He gave them his last name, Vonnegut.

“Why are you making war on your brothers?” they asked him. The question made little sense. He was a Hoosier, not a Kraut. But they weren’t completely off base. When he said his own name, he said it, as his father did, in the German way: Kooort.

The Germans pointed their guns at the Americans. They told Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to march.


Two years earlier, he had been a relatively carefree undergraduate, writing columns called “Innocents Abroad” and “Well All Right” for The Cornell Daily Sun, buying Old Grand-Dad bourbon for a dance he hoped his sweetheart, Jane, would attend. The war meant this to him: Cokes were being rationed on campus. The university was banning house parties and out-of-town dates. Fraternities were going to be strapped for cash. Kurt devoted a whole column to the looming frat-house financial crunch. “It’s a nasty picture no matter how you look at it,” he wrote in May 1941. “From an abstract point of view it will be interesting to watch, just like bombing.”

He’d been sixteen when the war began. He and two friends were wrapping up a summer road trip by spending a few days as the guests of Frank Phillips of Phillips Petroleum. Phillips had a resort in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, called Woolaroc Ranch. Woolaroc was a teenage boy’s fantasy, where Kurt and his pals spent their days riding horses, fishing, and swimming, their evenings drinking beer and smoking twenty-five-cent cigars. They goofed around with the lodge’s player piano and ransacked their host’s library for spicy crime novels and anthropological accounts of the sex lives of primitive tribes while the radio tallied the mounting threat in Europe. It all seemed impossibly far away. The day they drove home, Hitler invaded Poland. As they pounded the road for seven hundred miles, Kurt had looked back on the whole adventure and wondered if he’d ever be that happy again.

His family was pacifist; the Vonneguts had always been freethinkers. Kurt clung to his antiwar conviction long after most others had succumbed to patriotic warmongering. In one column for the Sun, he defended the unpopular isolationist sentiments of Charles Lindbergh. In another, he criticized the extreme anti-German bias of the American media. Later, he blasted Wendell Willkie, “political yo-yo from the Hoosier state,” for advocating the opening of a second front. It wasn’t that he was pro-German. He was just antiwar. He came from a long line of Germans, yes; his grandfather had designed the gorgeous Indianapolis social center formerly known as Das Deutsche Haus. After World War I caused a wave of anti-German sentiment, Das Deutsche Haus was renamed the Athenaeum. But in Kurt’s family, ethnicity was less important than ethics, intellect, and wit.

He had learned early that the best way for a third child to be heard at the dinner table was to crack a joke. Being funny was the only way he got them to stop interrupting and listen to him. Besides, his brother was brilliant, and his sister was artistic and beautiful. He couldn’t compete on brains or talent or glamour. So he nurtured his penchant for humor, and this served him well at the Sun. His fellow students at Cornell didn’t always agree with his isolationist sentiments, but they liked his snappy writing. In March 1942, he was appointed assistant managing editor of the paper.

He bragged about that to Jane Cox. He was always trying to impress her. They’d known each other since they were small children. In a way, she was his best friend. He recognized things in her—imagination, ambition, idealism—that he saw in himself. They were going to get married and live a blissful life together, full of books and music and smart conversation and ultimately kids—seven of them. He knew all of this, felt it somewhere deep inside him, even if Jane, busy acing her classes at Swarthmore and acting in plays and going on dates with a roster of eligible young men, hadn’t come around to it yet. Kurt wrote it over and over in his letters to her. She was alternately encouraging and distant. She was hell to get along with, Jane, but he loved her, and he always would. Nineteen forty-five was the year he had picked for their wedding. He wrote it in one of his columns.

Before he left for Europe, they became lovers.

At Cornell, he had spent all his time working on the newspaper, to the detriment of everything else. His grades in his major—chemistry— suffered. He was supposed to be earning an officer’s commission in the ROTC, but he got kicked out after writing an irreverent column: “We Impress Life Magazine with Our Efficient Role in National Defense.” In it, he claimed that he and the other ROTC boys had little idea what they were doing, but when a Life photographer visited, they gamely ran around and disassembled a rifle while shouting things like “Flathatcher! Biffleblock!” to seem like crack militiamen. The ROTC was not amused. It wasn’t the first time Kurt had mocked the warlike exertions of the college boys. An earlier column was cast as a letter to the military department from the school’s zoologists, who claimed to be just as ready for service as the chemical engineers and advance drill squads.

“Up in the front lines our commanding officer will say ‘Vontegal . . . what the hell kind of butterfly is that,’ and we’ll be the only man in the trench that can tell him. That’s the sort of thing that wins wars!”

It was, on some level, a sly crack at his brother, Bernard, who was doing war work. He’d been asked to leave his peacetime job and go back to MIT to work in the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service laboratory there. He was exempted from the draft because of it. He couldn’t tell his family what he was working on, but the family was proud of him; they were always proud of Bernard. How could Kurt resist mocking the notion that scientists would win the war? Besides, that was pretty much the only way he ever got a jump on Bernie: he made fun of him.

By his sophomore May, Kurt’s grades were so bad he was put on academic probation. He made light of his woes in a column titled “The Lost Battalion Undergoes a Severe Shelling.” He was the lost battalion.

Why didn’t he just switch his major to English or journalism? He was a newspaperman at heart. In Ithaca, his happiest moments were when he was editing the Sun, just as in Indianapolis they had been when he was editing the Shortridge Echo, the nation’s first high school daily. His experience there convinced him that not only did he like newspaper work, he was good at it. Toward the end of high school, he’d even managed to land a job offer from The Indianapolis Times. He wanted to take it. But becoming a newspaperman wasn’t what his father and Bernie had in mind for him.

Sure, Kurt senior and Bernie agreed, young Kurt could write, and he was funny—the family clown, the class clown—but when he graduated from high school, it was time to get serious. At one point, Kurt thought he might like to become an architect, like his father and his grandfather Bernard, who had designed the Athenaeum. The opulent building was still the heart of the Indianapolis German American community, and Kurt had spent many a night there as a kid, admiring the elaborate woodwork and leaded glass windows as the adults talked or danced or listened to music. It must be nice to make something so beautiful. But that was before the Great Depression had ruined his father. The disheartened Kurt senior wouldn’t hear of Kurt following in his footsteps. Be anything, he said bitterly, but an architect.

When he was a young man, Kurt’s dreams—shared with Jane—were all about writing. They both fantasized about being news correspondents in Europe. Sometimes, when Jane was playing along, they envisioned the house they might share: a courtyard with an oak tree at its center and a studio out back where they would sit side by side and type out masterpieces. But even Kurt had a hard time imagining writing for a living. He would have to do something else to support those seven kids.

Bernie knew what Kurt should do; he should be a scientist, like him. So Bernard and Kurt senior decided that Kurt should study chemistry. That was a useful, practical field. Kurt didn’t necessarily disagree. He believed, as they did, in science. It had more answers to the questions of life, he told Jane, than fields like psychology or philosophy. Science was going to make the world a better place. To be part of the utopian future, he should do as his brother said.

The older men didn’t think Kurt junior was MIT material, so they settled on Cornell. When it looked as if Cornell might not take him, Bernard drove Kurt to Harvard, where he was given a provisional acceptance. But then Cornell came through, and Bernard thought he would have a better time there. That, Kurt said later, “was his idea of me, sort of third rate.”

So in the fall of 1940, Kurt went off to Cornell to study chemistry. But he wasn’t a born scientist like Bernie. When it came to the actual class work, it just didn’t grab him. Not the way writing did. So he ignored his classes and did what made him happiest—keeping late hours in the offices of the Sun. Even the warning in his sophomore spring didn’t set him straight. By Christmas break of his junior year, he was flunking out. He came down with pneumonia at home and decided not to go back. But his draft number was coming up. In March 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

So now the whole chain of events boiled down to this: Private Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was a prisoner of war.


“The war is over for you,” the Germans told the Americans. Kurt joined the long line of Yank soldiers marching east, toward Germany. German cameramen stood filming as the prisoners limped along. This might be the Nazi propagandists’ last chance to convince the weary folk at home that victory was still within reach. Kurt saw them pointing their lenses at the broken men. Twenty-five years later, in Slaughterhouse-Five, he would describe them as having run out of film—a perfect symbol for the empty pointlessness of it all: the propaganda, the offensive, the Nazi war machine, the whole goddamn war. He picked up his tired feet and marched, past dead soldiers unfurling from tanks, past men frozen in snowy fields, arms stretched toward the sky in fruitless supplication. The Germans did have film. In it, the Americans looked dirty, disheartened, and exhausted. Some supported wounded comrades or lugged makeshift pallets. The rest trudged miserably along. They had survived the German offensive, but many would not survive what lay ahead.

When they came to the top of a hill, the captured men could see a long line of prisoners, as far forward as the eye could see. Seven thousand Allied soldiers had been bagged by the Germans. It would have been different if the Allies had been able to get their planes in the air. Air support could have nipped Herbstnebel in the bud. But in all that fog, the airplanes failed them. The weather had fought for the other side.

As they marched into Germany, some of the prisoners must have known the Germans were wrong about one thing: the war wasn’t over for them. Kurt and the other captured American troops were marching into a strange gray area, a place where they were neither soldiers nor civilians, neither at peace nor at war. The autumn fog swallowed them whole.

Excerpt​ed from "The Brothers Vonnegut" by Ginger Strand, published in November 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Ginger Strand. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Ginger Strand

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