A number of times in this lengthy paragraph (which has been segmented for analysis purposes) Stevenson indirectly touches upon a fact which has not been discussed – why is it that Frank Parker Stevenson, a reservist and not a career officer, holding a rank identical to that of John H. Van Vliet, Jr. who was a career officer (and who noted this in his report and testimony), is consistently identified as the Senior Officer of the group. Yet although Van Vliet and Stewart never modified that stance, in his report Stevenson seems to indicate that there was a clear consultative nature to his functioning as Senior Officer.
We were P.O.W.s, Russia our ally, and by such our duty and loyalty was definite and clear. This instruction applied not only to our presence in Berlin but should be obeyed as far as our own camps were concerned. It would be common knowledge that we had been taken to Katyn and perhaps unwise to conceal, but on our return to camp, we must maintain silence relative to our experience. This policy was unanimously agreed to by Col. van Vliet (sic) and the Other Ranks were called together and issued with an instruction bearing on this matter. The photographs were not distributed to the Other Ranks. The officers were given a set. The remainder I retained. Supplies are attached.
“The policy was unanimously agreed to by Col. Van Vliet (sic)” – logical reasoning might lead one to consider the following theory – the Germans were well appraised of the military backgrounds of their POWs – and as such, they would have faced a difficult quandary in the case of officers of equal rank – is an officer with a degree from a military academy to be accorded a higher level of respect? Or is an officer senior in age and years of military service to be accorded the respect? Or in fact, would it be the fact that Britain had entered the war before the US did, and that Lt. Colonel Stevenson had been a POW longer than Lt. Colonel Van Vliet, Jr.? Bearing in mind that this visit was organized by the Wehrmacht – for publicity purposes – but nonetheless by the Wehrmacht – this would have been an issue.
However, I suspect that another factor may have influenced the matter. John H. Van Vliet was supremely aware of the political nature of this trip and that the group was being photographed, filmed and recorded (not only in the forest, but as they noted, in their rooms) and as a result, he may have wanted to recede a bit from the omnipresent monitor, to be less of a focus. This is clearly apparent in the photographs from the site. As previously mentioned, Dr. Gilder is generally front and center speaking to Dr. Buhtz or Kiselev, and then standing in the clear forefront is Lt. Col. Stevenson, while on a number of images we see Van Vliet only from the rear, or a partial side view.
Thus, if the Germans were to use these photographs, the natural tendency in describing them would be to state the names of the people who were clearly visible and/or front and center. The others might not be mentioned, or if they were, their names would not be the first to be listed. Perhaps it is all happenstance, but I would conclude that Van Vliet and Stewart (who also tends not to appear full face, were highly sensitive to the propaganda value of an image that would list their names and the fact that they were graduates of the US Military Academy. In the stratified society of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and in the Wehrmacht, where not only military rank but aristocratic titles were still mentioned, referring to the presence of a graduate of Sandhurst, or alternatively the Military Academy, would have had great propaganda value.
Thus, what Captain Gilder describes as Stevenson’s paranoidal nature may have led to Stevenson wanting to assume the function of Senior Officer, while Van Vliet’s innate ability to discern the propaganda issues, would have led him to demur and deflect any suggestion that he serve as Senior Officer. Van Vliet described Stevenson in the following words:
He was a windbag
Nonetheless, Van Vliet clearly attempted to direct Stevenson’s reasoning in the matter, as is noted by Stevenson, not I would vouchsafe as an acknowledgment of Van Vliet’s input – but rather as an attempt, in 1945 to ensure that if an erroneous decision had been made, the blame could be equally shared by the South African reservist and the American career officer.
© Krystyna Piórkowska