Hammelburg, Germany, late December, 1944:
The cheery atmosphere of the hofbrau belied the harsh winter beyond its ornate oak doors. Outside, a combination of mud-brown slush and fresh white snow covered the town’s cobblestone streets, while inside, the mixture stopped at a rug in the foyer. Hardwood floors, scrubbed nightly to remove any signs of spilled beer, creaked unnoticed beneath the feet of German soldiers, local fräuleins, and workers from the nearby factory. Sounds of singing and laughter created a happy din.
There was a brief pause in the revelry as the door opened and two men entered; their mostly black uniforms marked them as SS soldiers. A gust of frigid winter wind and the sound of a truck idling just outside accompanied them. They quickly closed the door and began to remove their gloves. As they made their way to the bar, there were many sighs of relief, and the noise flared up again.
One of the most important lessons the citizens of Germany had learned over the past several years was that, if SS appeared, you didn’t draw attention to yourself. To all present, it appeared that the men were interested in no one in the hofbrau but themselves and the barmaid. Forgetting the customer she had been speaking to, the buxom blonde hurried over to take their order.
“What can I get you this evening?” she asked.
Before either man could answer, a portly Luftwaffe sergeant leaned over and smiled. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I would recommend the hasenpfeffer. It is wunderbar.” To emphasize his point, he dragged a meaty hand across his mouth in an attempt to wipe away the grease from his own meal.
The two SS men looked at the sergeant with obvious disdain. The fact that he was obviously overweight and older than the average soldier made the two men wonder if the Luftwaffe was scraping the bottom of the barrel for recruits.
After a few seconds, one of the men — a sergeant himself — began to nod. “Ja,” he said, “that sounds good.”
“I would like that as well,” said the second man, a lieutenant. “And prepare two more plates. There are still two men in the truck.”
“What about the prisoner?” asked the sergeant.
“Bah! This food is too good for him,” the lieutenant said. “Let them feed him after we deliver him to the prison camp.”
“Oh,” said the Luftwaffe sergeant, “you are going to the camp?”
The lieutenant’s initial reaction to the question was one of suspicion, but he quickly realized that, based on the sergeant’s appearance, he was more than likely a guard. That explained the man’s appearance.
“Yes, we are,” he said. “How much farther is it?”
“It is only five kilometers from here,” the sergeant replied.
“Excellent,” the lieutenant said. “The sooner our prisoner is secured at Stalag Luft, the happier I’ll be.”
“You sound like it is someone important,” the sergeant said.
The lieutenant glanced around the room and then at the barmaid who was standing nearby — she hurried to the kitchen the moment she realized she was under his scrutiny — before leaning closer to the guard.
In what could only be considered a conspiratorial whisper, he asked, “Have you ever heard of the Ace of Space?”