Hardy A. Mitchener, Jr. was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 509th Bombardment Squadron, 351st Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force, stationed in Polebrook, England, during World War II. He was shot down and captured on May 30, 1944, after a bombing mission in Oschersleben, Germany, and sent to Stalag Luft III shortly thereafter. During his stay at this POW camp in Sagan, Germany, known principally for the famous “Great Escape” that took place in March 1944, Mitchener kept a diary of his experiences. The diary contains detailed drawings of life at the camp as well as documentation of the prisoners’ rapid evacuation of Stalag Luft III on January 27, 1945. Mitchener was fond of writing songs and poems in his diary, and has included numerous examples of works that speak to the prisoners’ depression, boredom, frustration, and overpowering desire for freedom.
Hardy A. Mitchener, Jr., from Nashville, Tennessee, served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 509th Bombardment Squadron, 351st Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force during World War II. He was captured after a bombing mission over Germany on May 30, 1944, and subsequently sent to Stalag Luft III, a POW camp in Sagan, Germany. His POW diary, digitized here in its entirety, contains drawings, poems, songs, and other notes about his experiences as a German prisoner of war. He returned home from the war without physical injury, but died at an early age in 1957 from cancer. He was only 38.
Mitchener grew up in Nashville in the Inglewood area, and graduated from Isaac Litton High School in 1936. While in high school, he was voted “Wittiest Boy” and “Friendliest Boy,” according to his senior yearbook, "The Littonian." He attended Vanderbilt University for a year, and was a member of Sigma Nu fraternity. Mitchener had one sister, Margaret. It is likely that his diary was in her possession in 1993 when she died; the diary was acquired by TSLA in 1994.
In July 1941, Mitchener enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Polebrook, England. He was a navigator for a B-17G with nine other crew members including Crawford E. Hicks, Eugene J. Bianco, Lester L. Kunz, Francis E. Young, Ulis C. Briggs, Lowell A. Reid, Marvin R. Allen, Stephen N. Vasilik, and Kenneth E. Geldermann. On May 30, 1944, he was shot down after a bombing mission in Oschersleben, Germany. One crew member, Lester L. Kunz, was killed, probably by a 20mm cannon round from a FW-190 fighter. After Mitchener was captured, he was sent for processing at Dulag Luft (short for Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe). Interrogators were notoriously effective at obtaining information from traumatized airmen. Some of the interrogators were fluent in English and were able to establish a remarkable rapport with the captured airmen.
Although the Germans were expected to follow the Geneva Convention of 1929, many of the men experienced unfavorable conditions while at Dulag Luft, including solitary confinement, which was specifically prohibited. Mitchener does not detail what took place at Dulag Luft, but it is clear that he was sent there before being placed with other prisoners, known as Kriegies, at Stalag Luft III. Stalag Luft III was run by the German Luftwaffe, thus allowing for at least a modicum of respect between the prisoners and captors, although conditions were by no means comfortable. It was certainly preferable to imprisonment under the SS, however.
Stalag Luft III is located in present-day Zagan, Poland, but at the time, it was a remote part of German territory, and called Sagan. The region was rich in coal but rather cold and barren during the wintertime. Known as Silesia, the soil was also notoriously sandy, which made escape via underground digging difficult. Despite the unforgiving geography, a number of British airmen were able to mastermind the famous “Great Escape” in March 1944.
These men planned for months, digging three underground tunnels, known affectionately as Tom, Dick, and Harry. Tom was compromised at an early date, and Dick was used for storage; the tunnel used during the night of the escape was Harry. The men exercised extraordinary ingenuity in order to avoid detection. The sandy soil that was removed from the tunnels was a different color than the soil outside, so the men had to devise a way to discard the tunnel dirt. Men, known as penguins, placed small amounts of sand under their britches, and eliminated the sand bit by bit as they walked around outside. Other inventions included the use of mutton fat to create candle wicks, the use of Red Cross KLIM cans to create breathing tunnels, and the creation of forged stamps out of shoe rubber to create false identity papers. A black market in cigarettes and other small luxuries helped the prisoners obtain other necessary implements that could not be fabricated out of spare parts.
On the night of the escape, on March 24th and 25th, 1944, 76 men managed to escape before the scheme was detected. An unexpected Allied air raid altered their plans, as well as a problem with the escape tunnel; instead of reaching into the woods, it fell a few feet short of effective cover. A signaling system operated with a rope was devised in order to ensure their safety. When the escape was discovered later that evening, the Germans sent out a massive search party. Most of the men were caught, although three escaped to safety. Forty-seven were later murdered by the SS, under Hitler’s direct orders. This extraordinary event in World War II history has been immortalized by a 1963 movie production starring Steve McQueen.
Mitchener was not imprisoned at Stalag Luft III during the Great Escape, and when he arrived, the British airmen and Americans were stationed in separate quarters. During the Great Escape, a number of Americans were able to participate in the scheme, but none of them escaped to safety. Mitchener does not specifically mention this event in his diary.
Mitchener’s journal includes detailed information about life at the POW camp. Although his stay was improved by YMCA and International Red Cross contributions, including food and books, his diary is a poignant testimony to the grim life of a prisoner of war. Mitchener craved freedom, and constantly wrote of boredom, hunger, and cold. His diary is more of a scrapbook or journal, as he does not recount his day-to-day activities in a traditional sense. Rather, through inventive drawings and succinct notes, he told a broader story: the story of his capture, his general lifestyle as a prisoner, and his rapid evacuation on January 27, 1945, when the Soviets neared the camp. Poems and songs detail various aspects of camp life: the constant craving for freedom, thoughts of home, and camaraderie with fellow prisoners.
The precise circumstances surrounding Mitchener’s liberation are not detailed in the diary, but he survived the war to return home to Nashville.
Many details about his life upon his return home have been difficult to uncover, but he is known to have married Estelle Wadell in 1948. They had no children. Mitchener died of cancer in 1957 at St. Thomas Hospital, and is buried at Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee.
Astor, Gerald. The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe as Told by the Men who Fought It. New York: D.I. Fine Books, 1997.
Carroll, Tim. The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III: The Full Story of how 76 Allied Officers Carried Out World War II’s Most Remarkable Mass Escape. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.: 2004.
Clark, Albert P. 33 Months as a POW in Stalag Luft III: A World War II Airman Tells His Story. Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2004.
Durand, Arthur A. Stalag Luft III: The Secret Story. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
“For You the War is Over.” World War II Vol. 22 No. 6 (October 2007): 44-51.
The Great Escape. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment, 1998. DVD.
The Great Escape: The Most Daring Allied Prison Escape of World War II. Produced by Nova and directed by Mark Radice, 2004. DVD.
Miller, Donald L. Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War against Nazi Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Richard, Oscar G. III Kriegie: An American POW in Germany. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
School, Rick and Jeff Rogers. Valor at Polebrook: The Last Flight of Ten Horsepower. Wisconsin: Cross Roads, 2000.
Shavit, David. " 'The Greatest Morale Factor Next to the Red Army’: Books and Libraries in American and British Prisoners of War Camps in Germany during World War II.” Libraries and Culture Vol. 32 No. 2 (Spring 1999): 113-134.
Stalag Luft III Collection at the Air Force Academy Library in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Sweetman, John. Schweinfurt Disaster in the Skies. New York: Ballantine Books, Inc., 1971.
See the accession file for additional information obtained during processing, including obituaries, military information, yearbook pictures, newspaper clippings, and other data.