Edward R. ‘Joe’ Crone

The slaughterhouse in Dresden that served as POW camp, until the firebombing of February 1945.

While Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden during World War II, food became an obsession. To dull the ache in his belly and sharpen his wits, he bartered cigarettes for food and vice versa. Everyone did. A good touch was Private Edward R. “Joe” Crone from Rochester, New York, because he would always swap his ration for smokes, which he craved. Feeling a little guilty, the other prisoners took his bread, cheese, or soup in exchange.

There was something unworldly, and definitely unsoldierly about Crone. Just a glance at his childlike face framed by big ears suggested he would never have a nickname like “Rocky” or “Brownie” the way other guys did. He told everyone he was going to be ordained an Episcopalian minister when he got home. Before the war, as proof of his seriousness about his ministerial calling, he had listed on his application to Hobart College the dates of five years of perfect attendance at St. Paul’s Episcopal Sunday School in Rochester. The assistant principal at his high school, wondering how to praise a youngster who had a reputation for being physically awkward and shy, recommended Joe to the admissions office at Hobart as a young man “possessed of great moral courage.”

During his sophomore year at Hobart, he was drafted and Joe made an uncomplaining but terrible infantryman. On long marches, his assigned buddy in the 423rd regiment would get fed up having to “walk behind him and pick up all the utensils falling out of his backpack. He could never do it right.” He seemed unwilling to believe that his survival would largely depend on what he carried. Observing him, Vonnegut realized, “Joe didn’t understand the war and of course there was nothing to understand. The world had gone completely mad.”

In this bewildered young man who expected a rationale that would explain the bedlam of war, Vonnegut later found his protagonist, Billy Pilgrim for the novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Crone disappeared from the POW camp just as the Allies were approaching Dresden in April 1945. Another prisoner, James Mills found him lying on the cot next to him at Reviere Hospital in the town of Grlitz, fifty-five miles east of Dresden, where Mills had been taken for jaundice.

Joe had never stopped trading his food for cigarettes, as a gesture of defiance or perhaps out of naiveté. He was sure he wouldn’t be allowed to starve. So he had held out, expecting he would be the object of compassion, decency, or Christian charity. Now he was dying of the “thousand yard stare,” Vonnegut heard later. He was nearly dead. He only asked Mills for help once: “He was so skinny and weak and sick— he had to go to the bathroom during the night and all of us went over and tried to help him. We had to raise him up, get him at the right angle, and somebody stuck a can under him. He just absolutely couldn’t do nothing, and it took all of us to get him up so he would take a leak.” The next morning he was dead.

Life no longer made any sense to Crone, Vonnegut said. “And he was right. It wasn’t making any sense at all. So he didn’t want to pretend he understood it anymore, which is more than the rest of us did. We pretended we understood it.”

The Germans buried him in a white paper suit because they had taken away his uniform while he was in the hospital. To Vonnegut, “he was beautiful,” a kind of holy fool.

Charles J. Shields is the author of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt 2011).