February, 1944, found U.S. Air Corps pilot, Clair Cline, from Tacoma Washington, flying over Germany. Cline's B-24 bomber was struck by anti-aircraft fire, and the young officer bailed out over occupied Holland.
From his narrative, "The Prison Camp Violin", Cline recounts his first minutes on the ground. "We were surrounded by villagers asking for chocolate and cigarettes. Then an elderly uniformed German with a pistol in an unsteady hand marched me to an interrogation center."
Cline eventually ended up at Stalag Luft I, the prison camp for captured Allied airmen.
"The camp was a dismal place. We lived in rough wooden barracks, sleeping on bunks with straw-filled burlap sacks on wooden slats. Rations were meager; if it hadn't been for the Red Cross care packages, we would have starved."
The months of prison camp life were not easy, and Cline one day remembered words from his father, "You can make something out of nothing. Son, all you got to do is find a way, and there always is one."
As Fall arrived, the prisoner had a idea. Cline had always loved the violin, and using the wooden slats from his prison bunk, Cline began a small mission, to construct a violin. Cline traded his care-package tobacco rations to prison guards, who happen to love "amerikansche zigarettes", for a tiny pen knife, and other small tools.
Glue was very hard to find, then Cline noticed that there were dried droplets of glue on each chair in the prison barracks. He scraped off the brown residue, ground it up, mixed it with water, heated it on the stove, and to Cline's delight, it actually worked.
Slowly the instrument came to be. Cline used a broken piece of glass for carving, and men in the barracks began to scrape the glue off of any chairs and began to help.
It took Cline three months, but those three months went by fast. "I woke up every morning and could hardly wait to get back to work."
When the instrument was ready for varnish, more cigarettes were needed to procure pumice and paraffin oil until, "it shone with a golden glow."
One guard came up with some catgut for strings, and still another guard stunned Cline by giving him a real violin bow.
"Finally there came the day I lifted the finished instrument to my chin. Would it really play? Or would it be a croaking catastrophe? I drew the bow across the strings and my heart leaped as a pure resonant sound echoed through the air. My fellow prisoners banished me to the latrine until I regained my old skills. From then on they clapped, sang, and even danced as I played, Red Wing, Home on the Range, and Red River Valley."
"My most memorable moment was Christmas Eve. As my buddies brooded about home and families, I began playing "Silent Night". As the notes drifted through the barracks, a voice chimed in, then others. Amid the harmony I heard a different language. "Stille Nacht, Heilige nacht, alles schlaft, Einsam wacht..." An elderly white haired guard stood in the shadows, his eyes wet with tears."
Years later, after the horrors of war were over, Cline decided to donate the violin to the World War II museum aboard the aircraft carrier Intrepid. "I was told that the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic would play the violin at the museum's opening. Afterward he called me. "I expected a jalopy of a violin," said maestro Dicterow, "and instead it was something looking very good and sounding quite wonderful. It was an amazing achievement.""
Cline responded, "Not really...more like a gift from God."