Bodybuilding In A Prisoner Of War Camp

The author served in the 8th Air Force as an aerial engineer on a B-17 Flying Fortress. His airplane exploded over Munster, Germany on October 10, 1943, and he was taken a prisoner by the Germans, being held in Austria for Nineteen months until liberation by the 13th Armored Division of the United States Army.

“Some of you may think that the idea of weightlifting or bodybuilding under any conditions other than ideal sounds absurd, but permit me to report the facts so that you may see exactly what development was attained by a few prisoners of war.

The living conditions in a prisoner stockade were very bad – our camp being typical of the other in that the barracks were very crowded cold and damp in the winter months. Actually, more warmth was derived from the nearness of other individuals than from the scanty fuel supply. Everything was dirty, mud being tracked into the barracks from the exercise yard by the numerous roll calls in clement weather. The dirt covered everything; even our bedding blankets and excelsior mattresses.

However, the most discouraging feature was the very restricted diet – some individuals being very undernourished. The German diet for prisoners of war consisted of soup (containing rutabagas, cabbage and carrots) and black bread with very little of either. The Red Cross did a wonderful job of supplementing this diet with food parcels; but during the final six months of the war, they were not able to furnish us with these parcels to any great extent because of the tie-up of the German transportation system by the U.S. Air Force. On various occasions, the water supply was limited – many of the fellows taking shower baths in the summer rains.

Being a Sergeant in the Air Force at the time of my capture, I was not compelled to work for the German, but instead, was placed in a camp for non-commissioned officers, where my only occupation was to stand roll call at various and numerous times of the day. Consequently, I had some leisure time and needed a form of recreation to keep my mind and body occupied to advantage. Many fellows spent entirely too much time in their bunks in the barracks, thus the need for exercise to bring them out into the open air and sunshine.

In order to build any weightlifting equipment, we were forced to beg borrow or steal material from our captors. An ideal substance for this construction would have been cement; however, we had access only to the type used in motoring chimneys, and this was too inferior for our use, the concrete powdered as it dried.

Our most successful type of barbell was two sand boxes on a pole. As the weights were not adjustable, we had to build many of them, the limit of poundage being governed by the strength of the pole or bar. We later tore up pieces of red oak flooring from out barracks, nailing them together and shaping them into poles with pocked knives. Those poles proved successful since one strip reinforced the other (as in a tennis racquet or flag pole staff) and enabled us to construct a barbell of 185 pounds, used for the supine press shrugs and squats.

After much discouragement with sand box weights, we decided to attempt to build an adjustable bar bell out of a piece of pipe and a few tin cans. This was completed after many weeks of work, cutting with hand scissors more than four thousand tin cans into flat pieces of metal, weaving these pieces together into disc and pressing disc into metal cases built by a fellow prisoner who had been a tinsmith before the war. As a final product we had an adjustable barbell of 225 pounds, the largest plates weighing twenty five pounds and the smallest two and one half pounds. Then we were able to perform many exercises which we were not able to do previously.

As a result of the clumsiness of our weights, most of us had very elaborate pressing programs – including military supine and bent press. Several of the boys with no previous experience in weightlifting were able to handle body weight in the military press (a lad from Brooklyn being able to press 185 pounds at the body weight of 140 pounds).

We soon discovered as a result of hour restricted diet, no matter how great we developed our quick strength, we had very little endurance. In a few of the track meets in our camp, very good times were turned in on the dashes, but no one had the endurance to run distances in good style. We noticed that in the boxing matches few of the contestants were able to last three round.

As an example of what bodybuilding could be done, a lad from North Carolina, who was the assistant 
 engineer on my crew, entered the Army weighing only 121 pounds. After one year’s training with the weights while a prisoner of war, his body weight increased to 1655 pounds. Not bad on soup and black bread!

I am of the honest opinion that we fellows who trained with weights were able to derive more food value, energy and nourishment from out food than those who did nothing in the way of exercise. A quick glance at the contrast of physiques seen in camp would point out to you the weightlifters.

The period of confinement passed more rapidly for those individuals who kept themselves occupied at some form of recreation. Without weightlifting my health would have been much poorer at the end of the war.

I hope you reader haven’t decided that such essential as plenty of wholesome food, rest and cleanliness aren’t important. I desire only to tell you what was done through bodybuilding even under adverse conditions.”

Richard. E. Derby attended Indian University. At 5’11” he developed from 148 pounds to 195 pounds. HE started as a medical student and finished with a degree in chemistry. 

During his last three weeks as a prisoner of war all the men in his camp in Austria were forced to march 300 miles on a starvation diet up into the mountains toward Switzerland in order that the Nazis might prevent his group being liberated by the Red Army. After his return to the States he was hospitalized five months due to malnutrition and complications. When he was at last able to get back “on the weights” he gained 60 pounds in a short time..

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