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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsPaths Of Glory: Impressions Of War Written At And Near The Front - Chapter 6. With the German Wrecking Crew
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Paths Of Glory: Impressions Of War Written At And Near The Front - Chapter 6. With the German Wrecking Crew Post by :simkl Category :Nonfictions Author :Irvin S. Cobb Date :May 2012 Read :3163

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Paths Of Glory: Impressions Of War Written At And Near The Front - Chapter 6. With the German Wrecking Crew

When we came out of the little taverne at Beaumont, to start--as we fondly supposed--for Brussels, it was pitch dark in the square of the forlorn little town. With us the polite and pleasant fiction that we were guests of the German authorities had already worn seedy, not to say threadbare, but Lieutenant Mittendorfer persisted in keeping the little romance alive. For, as you remember, we had been requested--requested, mind you, and not ordered--to march to the station with the armed escort that would be in charge of the prisoners of war, and it had been impressed upon us that we were to assist in guarding the convoy, although no one of us had any more deadly weapon in his possession than a fountain pen; and finally, according to our instructions, if any prisoner attempted to escape in the dark we were to lay detaining hands upon him and hold him fast.

This was all very flattering and very indicative of the esteem in which the military authorities of Beaumont seemed to hold us. But we were not puffed up with a sense of our new responsibilities. Also we were as a unit in agreeing that under no provocation would we yield to temptations to embark on any side-excursions upon the way to the railroad. Personally I know that I was particularly firm upon this point. I would defy that column to move so fast that I could not keep up with it.

In the black gloom we could make out a longish clump of men who stood four abreast, scuffling their feet upon the miry wet stones of the square. These were the prisoners--one hundred and fifty Frenchmen and Turcos, eighty Englishmen and eight Belgians. From them, as we drew near, an odor of wet, unwashed animals arose. It was as rank and raw as fumes from crude ammonia. Then, in the town house of the Prince de Caraman-Chimay just alongside, the double doors opened, and the light streaming out fell upon the naked bayonets over the shoulders of the sentries and made them look like slanting lines of rain.

There were eight of us by now in the party of guests, our original group of five having been swollen by the addition of three others--the Frenchman Gerbeaux, the American artist Stevens and the Belgian court- photographer Hennebert, who had been under arrest for five days. We eight, obeying instructions--no, requests--found places for ourselves in the double files of guards, four going one side of the column and four the other. I slipped into a gap on the left flank, alongside four of the English soldiers. The guard immediately behind me was a man I knew. He had been on duty the afternoon previous in the place where we were being kept, and he had been obliging enough to let me exercise my few words of German upon him. He grinned now in recognition and humorously patted the stock of his rifle--this last, I take it, being his effort to convey to my understanding that he was under orders to shoot me in the event of my seeking to play truant during the next hour or so. He didn't know me--wild horses could not have dragged us apart.

A considerable wait ensued. Officers, coming back from the day's battle lines in automobiles, jumped out of their cars and pressed up, bedraggled and wet through from the rain which had been falling, to have a look at the prisoners. Common soldiers appeared also. Of these latter many, I judged, had newly arrived at the front and had never seen any captured enemies before. They were particularly interested in the Englishmen, who as nearly as I could tell endured the scrutinizing pretty well, whereas the Frenchmen grew uneasy and self-conscious under it. We who were in civilian dress--and pretty shabby civilian dress at that--came in for our share of examination too. The sentries were kept busy explaining to newcomers that we were not spies going north for trial. There was little or no jeering at the prisoners.

Lieutenant Mittendorfer appeared to feel the burden of his authority mightily. His importance expressed itself in many bellowing commands to his men. As he passed the door of headquarters, booming like a Prussian night-bittern, one of the officers there checked him with a gesture.

"Why all the noise, Herr Lieutenant?" he said pleasantly in German. "Cannot this thing be done more quietly?"

The young man took the hint, and when he climbed upon a bench outside the wine-shop door his voice was much milder as he admonished the prisoners that they would be treated with due honors of war if they obeyed their warders promptly during the coming journey, but that the least sign of rebellion among them would mean but one thing--immediate death. Since he spoke in German, a young French lieutenant translated the warning for the benefit of the Frenchmen and the Belgians, and a British noncom. did the same for his fellow countrymen, speaking with a strong Scottish burr. He wound up with an improvisation of his own, which I thought was typically British. "Now, then, boys," he sang out, "buck up, all of you! It might be worse, you know, and some of these German chaps don't seem a bad lot at all."

So, with that, Lieutenant Mittendorfer blew out his big chest and barked an order into the night, and away we all swung off at a double quick, with our feet slipping and sliding upon the travel-worn granite boulders underfoot. In addition to being rounded and unevenly laid, the stones were now coated with a layer of slimy mud. It was a hard job to stay upright on them.

I don't think I shall ever forget that march. I know I shall never forget that smell, or the sound of all our feet clumping over those slick cobbles. Nor shall I forget, either, the appealing calls of Gerbeaux' black chauffeur, who was being left behind in the now empty guardhouse, and who, to judge from his tones, did not expect ever to see any of us again. As a matter of fact, I ran across him two weeks later in Liege. He had just been released and was trying to make his way back to Brussels.

The way ahead of us was inky black. The outlines of the tall Belgian houses on either side of the narrow street were barely visible, for there were no lights in the windows at all and only dim candles or oil lamps in the lower floors. No natives showed themselves. I do not recollect that in all that mile-long tramp I saw a single Belgian civilian--only soldiers, shoving forward curiously as we passed and pressing the files closer in together.

Through one street we went and into another which if anything was even narrower and blacker than the first, and presently we could tell by the feel of things under our feet that we had quit the paved road and were traversing soft earth. We entered railway sidings, stumbling over the tracks, and at the far end of the yard emerged into a sudden glare of brightness and drew up alongside a string of cars.

After the darkness the flaring brilliancy made us blink and then it made us wonder there should be any lights at all, seeing that the French troops, in retiring from Beaumont four days before, had done their hurried best to cripple the transportation facilities and had certainly put the local gas plant out of commission. Yet here was illumination in plenty and to spare. At once the phenomenon stood explained. Two days after securing this end of the line the German engineers had repaired the torn-up right-of-way and installed a complete acetylene outfit, and already they were dispatching trains of troops and munitions clear across southeastern Belgium to and from the German frontier. When we heard this we quit marveling. We had by now ceased to wonder at the lightning rapidity and un-human efficiency of the German military system in the field.

Under the sizzling acetylene torches we had our first good look at these prospective fellow-travelers of ours who were avowedly prisoners.

Considered in the aggregate they were not an inspiring spectacle. A soldier, stripped of his arms and held by his foes, becomes of a sudden a pitiable, almost a contemptible object. You think instinctively of an adder that has lost its fangs, or of a wild cat that, being shorn of teeth to bite with and claws to tear with, is now a more helpless, more impotent thing than if it had been created without teeth and claws in the first place. These similes are poor ones, I'm afraid, but I find it difficult to put my thoughts exactly into words.

These particular soldiers were most unhappy looking, all except the half dozen Turcos among the Frenchmen. They spraddled their baggy white legs and grinned comfortably, baring fine double rows of ivory in their brown faces. The others mainly were droopy figures of misery and shame. By reason of their hair, which they wore long and which now hung down in their eyes, and by reason also of their ridiculous loose red trousers and their long-tailed awkward blue coats, the Frenchmen showed themselves especially unkempt and frowzy-looking. Almost to a man they were dark, lean, slouchy fellows; they were from the south of France, we judged. Certainly with a week's growth of black whiskers upon their jaws they were fit now to play stage brigands without further make-up.

"Wot a bloomin', stinkin', rotten country!" came, two rows back from where I stood, a Cockney voice uplifted to the leaky skies. "There ain't nothin' to eat in it, and there ain't nothin' to drink in it, too."

A little whiny man alongside of me, whose chin was on his breast bone, spake downward along his gray flannel shirt bosom:

"Just wyte," he said; "just wyte till England 'ears wot they done to us, 'erdin' us about like cattle. Blighters!" He spat his disgust upon the ground.

We spoke to none of them directly, nor they to us--that also being a condition imposed by Mittendorfer.

The train was composed of several small box cars and one second-class passenger coach of German manufacture with a dumpy little locomotive at either end, one to pull and one to push. In profile it would have reminded you somewhat of the wrecking trains that go to disasters in America. The prisoners were loaded aboard the box cars like so many sheep, with alert gray shepherds behind them, carrying guns in lieu of crooks; and, being entrained, they were bedded down for the night upon straw.

The civilians composing our party were bidden to climb aboard the passenger coach, where the eight of us, two of the number being of augmented super-adult size, took possession of a compartment meant to hold six. The other compartments were occupied by wounded Germans, except one compartment, which was set aside for the captive French lieutenant and two British subalterns. Top-Sergeant Rosenthal was in charge of the train with headquarters aboard our coach. With him, as aides, he had three Red Cross men.

The lighting apparatus of the car did not operate. On the ledge of our window sat a small oil lamp, sending out a rich smell and a pale, puny illumination. Just before we pulled out Rosenthal came and blew out the lamp, leaving the wick to smoke abominably. He explained that he did this for our own well-being. Belgian snipers just outside the town had been firing into the passing trains, he said, and a light in a car window was but an added temptation. He advised us that if shooting started we should drop upon the floor. We assured him in chorus that we would, and then after adding that we must not be surprised if the Belgians derailed the train during the night he went away, leaving us packed snugly in together in the dark. This incident had a tendency to discourage light conversation among us for some minutes.

Possibly it was because daylight travel would be safer travel, or it may have been for some other good and sufficient reason, that after traveling some six or eight miles joltingly we stopped in the edge of a small village and stayed there until after sun-up. That was a hard night for sleeping purposes. One of our party, who was a small man, climbed up into the baggage net above one row of seats and stretched himself stiffly in the narrow hammock-like arrangement, fearing to move lest he tumble down on the heads of his fellow-sufferers. Another laid him down in the little aisle flanking the compartment, where at least he might spraddle his limbs and where also, persons passing the length of the car stepped upon his face and figure from time to time. This interfered with his rest. The remaining six of us mortised ourselves into the seats in neck-cricking attitudes, with our legs so intertwined and mingled that when one man got up to stretch himself he had to use great care in picking out his own legs. Sometimes he could only tell that it was his leg by pinching it. This was especially so after inaction had put his extremities to sleep while the rest of him remained wide awake.

After dawn we ran slowly to Charleroi, the center of the Belgian iron industry, in a sterile land of mines and smelters and slag-heaps, and bleak, bare, ore-stained hillsides. The Germans had fought here, first with organized troops of the Allies, and later, by their own telling, with bushwhacking civilians. Whole rows of houses upon either side of the track had been ventilated by shells or burned out with fire, and their gable ends, lacking roofs, now stood up nakedly, fretting the skyline like gigantic saw teeth. As we were drawing out from between these twin rows of ruins we saw a German sergeant in a flower plot alongside a wrecked cottage bending over, apparently smelling at a clump of tall red geraniums. That he could find time in the midst of that hideous desolation to sniff at the posies struck us as a typically German bit of sentimentalism. Just then, though, he stood erect and we were better informed. He had been talking over a military telephone, the wires of which were buried underground with a concealed transmitter snuggling beneath the geraniums. The flowers even were being made to contribute their help in forwarding the mechanism of war. I think, though, that it took a composite German mind to evolve that expedient. A Prussian would bring along the telephone; a Saxon would bed it among the blossoms.

We progressed onward by a process of alternate stops and starts, through a land bearing remarkably few traces to show for its recent chastening with sword and torch, until in the middle of the blazing hot forenoon we came to Gembloux, which I think must be the place where all the flies in Belgium are spawned. Here on a siding we lay all day, grilled in the heat and pestered by swarms of the buzzing scavenger vermin, while troop trains without number passed us, hurrying along the sentry-guarded railway to the lower frontiers of Belgium. Every box-car door made a frame for a group-picture of broad German faces and bulky German bodies. Upon nearly every car the sportive passengers had lashed limbs of trees and big clumps of field flowers. Also with colored chalks they had extensively frescoed the wooden walls as high up as they could reach. The commonest legend was "On to Paris," or for variety "To Paris Direct," but occasionally a lighter touch showed itself. For example, one wag had inscribed on a car door: "Declarations of War Received Here," and another had drawn a highly impressionistic likeness of his Kaiser, and under it had inscribed "Wilhelm II, Emperor of Europe."

Presently as train after train, loaded sometimes with guns or supplies but usually with men, clanked by, it began to dawn upon us that these soldiers were of a different physical type from the soldiers we had seen heretofore. They were all Germans, to be sure, but the men along the front were younger men, hard-bitten and trained down, with the face which we had begun to call the Teutonic fighting face, whereas these men were older, and of a heavier port and fuller fashion of countenance. Also some of them wore blue coats, red-trimmed, instead of the dull gray service garb of the troops in the first invading columns. Indeed some of them even wore a nondescript mixture of uniform and civilian garb. They were Landwehr and Landsturm, troops of the third and fourth lines, going now to police the roads and garrison the captured towns, and hold the lines of communication open while the first line, who were picked troops, and the second line, who were reservists, pressed ahead into France.

They showed a childlike curiosity to see the prisoners in the box cars behind us. They grinned triumphantly at the Frenchmen and the Britishers, but the sight of a Turco in his short jacket and his dirty white skirts invariably set them off in derisive cat-calling and whooping. One beefy cavalryman in his forties, who looked the Bavarian peasant all over, boarded our car to see what might be seen. He had been drinking. He came nearer being drunk outright than any German soldier I had seen to date. Because he heard us talking English he insisted on regarding us as English spies.

"Hark! they betray themselves," we heard him mutter thickly to one of his wounded countrymen in the next compartment. "They are damned Englishers."

"Nein! Nein! All Americans," we heard the other say.

"Well, if they are Americans, why don't they talk the American language then?" he demanded. Hearing this, I was sorry I had neglected in my youth to learn Choctaw.

Still dubious of us, he came now and stood in the aisle, rocking slightly on his bolster legs and eying us glassily. Eventually a thought pierced the fog of his understanding. He hauled his saber out of its scabbard and invited us to run our fingers along the edge and see how keen and sharp it was. He added, with appropriate gestures, that he had honed it with the particular intent of slicing off a few English heads. For one, and speaking for one only, I may say I was, on the whole, rather glad when he departed from among us.

When we grew tired of watching the troop trains streaming south we fought the flies, and listened for perhaps the tenth time to the story of Stevens' experience when he first fell into German hands, six days before.

Stevens was the young American who accompanied Gerbeaux, the Frenchman, and Hennebert, the Belgian, on their ill-timed expedition from Brussels in an automobile bearing without authority a Red Cross flag. Gerbeaux was out to get a story for the Chicago paper which he served as Brussels correspondent, and the Belgian hoped to take some photographs; but a pure love of excitement brought Stevens along. He had his passport to prove his citizenship and a pass from General von Jarotzky, military commandant of Brussels, authorizing him to pass through the lines. He thought he was perfectly safe.

When their machine was halted by the Germans a short distance south and west of Waterloo, Stevens, for some reason which he could never understand, was separated from his two companions and the South-African negro chauffeur. A sergeant took him in charge, and all the rest of the day he rode on the tail of a baggage wagon with a guard upon either side of him. First, though, he was searched and all his papers were taken from him.

Late in the afternoon the pack-train halted and as Stevens was stretching his legs in a field a first lieutenant, whom he described as being tall and nervous and highly excitable, ran up and, after berating the two guards for not having their rifles ready to fire, he poked a gun under Stevens' nose and went through the process of loading it, meanwhile telling him that if he moved an inch his brains would be blown out. A sergeant gently edged Stevens back out of the danger belt, and, from behind the officer's back another man, so Stevens said, tapped himself gently upon the forehead to indicate that the Herr Lieutenant was cracked in the brain.

After this Stevens was taken into an improvised barracks in a deserted Belgian gendarmerie and locked in a room. At nine o'clock the lieutenant came to him and told him in a mixture of French and German that he had by a court-martial been found guilty of being an English spy and that at six o'clock the following morning he would be shot. "When you hear a bugle sound you may know that is the signal for your execution," the officer added.

While poor Stevens was still begging for an opportunity to be heard in his own defense the lieutenant dealt him a blow in the side which left him temporarily breathless. In a moment two soldiers had crossed his wrists behind his back and were lashing them tightly together with a rope.

Thus bound he was taken back indoors and made to sit on a bench. Eight soldiers stretched themselves upon the floor of the room and slept there; a sergeant slept with his body across the door. A guard sat on the bench beside Stevens.

"He gave me two big slugs of brandy to drink," said Stevens, continuing his tale, "and it affected me no more than so much water. After a couple of hours I managed to work the cords loose and I got one hand free. Moving cautiously I lifted my feet, and by stretching my arms cautiously down, still holding them behind my back, I untied one shoe. I meant at the last to kick off my shoes and run for it. I was feeling for the laces on my other shoe when another guard came to re-enforce the first, and he watched me so closely that I knew that chance was gone.

"After a while, strange as it seems, all the fear and all the horror of death left me. My chief regret now was, not that I had to die, but that my people at home would never know how I died or where. I put my head down on the table and actually dozed off. But there was a clock in the room and whenever it struck I would rouse up and say to myself, almost impersonally, that I now had four hours to live, or three, or two, as the case might be. Then I would go to sleep again. Once or twice a queer sinking sensation in my stomach, such as I never felt before, would come to me, but toward daylight this ceased to occur.

"At half-past five two soldiers, one carrying a spade and the other a lantern, came in. They lit the lantern at a lamp that burned on a table in front of me and went out. Presently I could hear them digging in the yard outside the door. I believed it was my grave they were digging. I cannot recall that this made any particular impression upon me. I considered it in a most casual sort of fashion. I remember wondering whether it was a deep grave.

"At five minutes before six a bugle sounded. The eight men on the floor got up, buckled on their cartridge belts, shouldered their rifles and, leaving their knapsacks behind, tramped out. I followed with my guards upon either side of me. My one fear now was that I should tremble at the end. I felt no fear, but I was afraid my knees would shake. I remember how relieved I was when I took the first step to find my legs did not tremble under me.

"I was resolved, too, that I would not be shot down with my hands tied behind me. When I faced the squad I meant to shake off the ropes on my wrists and take the volley with my arms at my sides."

Stevens was marched to the center of the courtyard. Then, without a word of explanation to him his bonds were removed and he was put in an automobile and carried off to rejoin the other members of the unlucky sightseeing party. He never did find out whether he had been made the butt of a hideous practical joke by a half-mad brute or whether his tormentor really meant to send him to death and was deterred at the last moment by fear of the consequences. One thing he did learn--there had been no court-martial. Thereafter, during his captivity, Stevens was treated with the utmost kindness by all the officers with whom he came in contact. His was the only instance that I have knowledge of where a prisoner has been tortured, physically or mentally, by a German. It was curious that in this one case the victim should have been an American citizen whose intentions were perfectly innocent and whose papers were orthodox and unquestionable.

Glancing back over what I have here written down I find I have failed altogether to mention the food which we ate on that trip of ours with the German wrecking crew. It was hardly worth mentioning, it was so scanty.

We had to eat, during that day while we lay at Gembloux, a loaf of the sourish soldiers' black bread, with green mold upon the crust, and a pot of rancid honey which one of the party had bethought him to bring from Beaumont in his pocket. To wash this mixture down we had a few swigs of miserably bad lukewarm ration-coffee from a private's canteen, a bottle of confiscated Belgian mineral water, which a private at Charleroi gave us from his store, and a precious quart of the Prince de Caraman- Chimay's commandeered wine--also a souvenir of our captivity. Late in the afternoon a sergeant sold us for a five-mark piece a big skin-casing filled with half-raw pork sausage. I've never tasted anything better.

Even so, we fared better than the prisoners in the box cars behind and the dozen wounded men in the coach with us. They had only coffee and dry bread and, at the latter end of the long day, a few chunks of the sausage. Some of the wounded men were pretty badly hurt, too. There was one whose left forearm had been half shot away. His stiff fingers protruded beyond his soiled bandages and they were still crusted with dried blood and grained with dirt. Another had been pierced through the jaw with a bullet. That part of his face which showed through the swathings about his head was terribly swollen and purple with congested blood. The others had flesh wounds, mainly in their sides or their legs. Some of them were feverish; all of them sorely needed clean garments for their bodies and fresh dressings for their hurts and proper food for their stomachs. Yet I did not hear one of them complain or groan.

With that oxlike patience of the North-European peasant breed, which seems accentuated in these Germans in time of war, they quietly endured what was acute discomfort for any sound man to have to endure. In some dim, dumb fashion of their own they seemed, each one of them, to comprehend that in the vast organism of an army at war the individual unit does not count. To himself he may be of prime importance and first consideration, but in the general carrying out of the scheme he is a mote, a molecule, a spore, a protoplasm--an infinitesimal, utterly inconsequential thing to be sacrificed without thought. Thus we diagnosed their mental poses. Along toward five o'clock a goodish string of cars was added to our train, and into these additional cars seven hundred French soldiers, who had been collected at Gembloux, were loaded. With the Frenchmen as they marched under our window went, perhaps, twenty civilian prisoners, including two priests and three or four subdued little men who looked as though they might be civic dignitaries of some small Belgian town. In the squad was one big, broad-shouldered peasant in a blouse, whose arms were roped back at the elbows with a thick cord.

"Do you see that man?" said one of our guards excitedly, and he pointed at the pinioned man. "He is a grave robber. He has been digging up dead Germans to rob the bodies. They tell me that when they caught him he had in his pockets ten dead men's fingers which he had cut off with a knife because the flesh was so swollen he could not slip the rings off. He will be shot, that fellow."

We looked with a deeper interest then at the man whose arms were bound, but privately we permitted ourselves to be skeptical regarding the details of his alleged ghoulishness. We had begun to discount German stories of Belgian atrocities and Belgian stories of German atrocities. I might add that I am still discounting both varieties.

To help along our train two more little engines were added, but even with four of them to draw and to shove their load was now so heavy that we were jerked along with sensations as though we were having a jaw tooth pulled every few seconds. After such a fashion we progressed very slowly. Already we knew that we were not going to Brussels, as we had been promised in Beaumont that we should go. We only hoped we were not bound for a German military fortress in some interior city.

It fell to my lot that second night to sleep in the aisle. In spite of being walked on at intervals I slept pretty well. When I waked it was three o'clock in the morning, just, and we were standing in the train shed at Liege, and hospital corps men were coming aboard with hot coffee and more raw sausages for the wounded. Among the Germans, sausages are used medicinally. I think they must keep supplies of sausages in their homes, for use in cases of accident and sickness.

I got up and looked from the window. The station was full of soldiers moving about on various errands. Overhead big arc lights sputtered spitefully, so that the place was almost as bright as day. Almost directly below me was a big table, which stood on the platform and was covered over with papers and maps. At the table sat two officers--high officers, I judged--writing busily. Their stiff white cuff-ends showed below their coat-sleeves; their slim black boots were highly polished, and altogether they had the look of having just escaped from the hands of a valet. Between them and the frowsy privates was a gulf a thousand miles wide and a thousand miles deep.

When I woke again it was broad daylight and we had crossed the border and were in Germany. At small way stations women and girls wearing long white aprons and hospital badges came under the car windows with hot drinks and bacon sandwiches for the wounded. They gave us some, too, and, I think, bestowed what was left upon the prisoners at the rear. We ran now through a land untouched by war, where prim farmhouses stood in prim gardens. It was Sunday morning and the people were going to church dressed in their Sunday best. Considering that Germany was supposed to have been drained of its able-bodied male adults for war-making purposes we saw, among the groups, an astonishingly large number of men of military age. By contrast with the harried country from which we had just emerged this seemed a small Paradise of peace. Over there in Belgium all the conditions of life had been disorganized and undone, where they had not been wrecked outright. Over here in Germany the calm was entirely unruffled.

It shamed us to come as we were into such surroundings. For our car was littered with sausage skins and bread crusts, and filth less pleasant to look at and stenches of many sorts abounded. Indeed I shall go further and say that it stank most fearsomely. As for us, we felt ourselves to be infamous offenses against the bright, clean day. We had not slept in a bed for five nights or had our clothes off for that time. For three days none of us had eaten a real meal at a regular table. For two days we had not washed our faces and hands.

The prisoners of war went on to Cologne to be put in a laager, but we were bidden to detrain at Aix-la-Chapelle. We climbed off, a dirty, wrinkled, unshaven troop of vagabonds, to find ourselves free to go where we pleased.

That is, we thought so at first. But by evening the Frenchman and the Belgians had been taken away to be held in prison until the end of the war, and for two days the highly efficient local secret-service staff kept the rest of us under its watchful care. After that, though, the American consul, Robert J. Thompson, succeeded in convincing the military authorities that we were not dangerous.

I still think that taking copious baths and getting ourselves shaved helped to clear us of suspicion.

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