On Veterans Day, I’d like to pay tribute to my dear father-in-law, a World War II veteran and POW.
Dad’s military service left a legacy to our family I hope will endure for generations.
After graduating high school, he initially attended West Point. But several months after D-Day, in June 1944, dad shipped across the Atlantic to Europe.
There, he took part in The Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive. The last major German campaign on the Western Front during World War II took place from December 1944 through January 1945.
It was the biggest and deadliest single battle of WWII for American soldiers. About 19,000 Americans were eventually killed. Some 47,500 were wounded, with another 23,000 captured or missing in action.
Dad was one of those initially listed as missing in action. For many months, his family and the army did not know he had been captured and was in a German Prisoner of War (POW) camp.
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Let me begin by saying that although dad’s time in a German POW camp defined his military service, it did not overshadow or dominate his life after the war. However, on Veterans Day, my intent is to honor dad’s service and sacrifice for his country.
Small Town Beginnings
Dad — Pop Pop to his grandchildren — was born in Altoona, located in central Pennsylvania.
His parents and grandparents were from the same small town, which was built around the railroad industry.
An only child, dad’s mother was raised around lots of aunts, uncles and cousins who lived on the same street. Her paternal grandfather had owned a farm that included a large tract of land below the famous Horseshoe Curve. In fact, the railroad track actually consists of two curves, with one named for the family’s farm.
After the battle of Gettysburg, Union troops camped on the land awaiting transportation by train. One account indicates Abraham Lincoln sent a letter to dad’s great-grandfather, thanking him for hosting the troops on his farm. Boy, I’d give anything to see a copy!
Dad’s other paternal great-grandfather owned the firm that constructed the Altoona Reservoir, which sits in the valley below the Horseshoe Curve. That necessitated his other great-grandparents to sell their farmland (which was subsequently covered by water), and move to downtown Altoona.
Several of dad’s paternal ancestral lines extend back to early colonists in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Massachusetts. He is also a descendent of Peacock (aka the “Rebel Bird”) , a Revolutionary War veteran featured in, Celebrating Patriots on Independence Day. Dad was thrilled and fascinated by my genealogical discoveries.
Love Overcomes Differences
Although both dad’s parents prided themselves as being of Irish descent; his father was Protestant and mother Catholic.
I’ll never forget how his mom pulled me aside, shortly before our engagement party. She explained that my soon-to-be-married name was the Irish Protestant spelling. Her intent was to give me fair warning, just in case that changed my mind about marrying dear husband lol!
But religious differences weren’t a laughing matter when the couple had to elope in order to get married. That required traveling by train to Cumberland, Maryland, shortly after the end of the Spanish Flu Pandemic.
Fortunately, upon their return home to Altoona, the couple was embraced by both their families. In fact, my father-in-law was born in the same home as his mother, and spent his early years living with his maternal grandparents.
Dad with his paternal grandparents, standing on the running board of the first Model A in Altoona. His grandfather was also the first ice cream manufacturer in the area. I have one of the original wooden scoops.
Dad’s older brother had died in infancy and his younger sister wasn’t born until a number of years later.
As a young boy, dad with his father outside the family home in Altoona, PA.
Raised as a cherished son and grandson, dad was also very close to a large number of cousins on both sides of his family.
Battle of the Bulge
Unfortunately, this photograph wasn’t discovered until after dad had passed. So we don’t know who the people are pictured with him. They could be cousins or friends.
But, it would have been taken before dad sailed to Scotland on the Queen Mary. During WWII, the ship had been retrofitted as a troop carrier and was nicknamed, the “Grey Ghost.”
Dad was a private in the 423 Regiment of the 106th Army Infantry Division, Weapons Platoon.
His division had barely finished training when their regiment moved across France to relieve the 2nd Infantry Division in Belgium. German tanks quickly surrounded and scattered the green, inexperience infantry division.
The brutal Battle of the Bulge was the first and only conflict dad participated in.
White Christmas 1944
That December the weather was bitterly cold, with about a foot of snow on the ground. It was dark and foggy when dad got separated from his unit. He spent days alone and lost in the dense forest, before being captured by German soldiers. It was nearly Christmas.
Dad was only 19 years old. I think of my own sons when they were that age, and find it unimaginable.
White Christmas is my favorite holiday movie. But, I can’t watch it without thinking of dad and imagine him freezing cold, hungry and terrified. Particularly during the opening scene when Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are entertaining the troops on Christmas Eve. Bing sings White Christmas to the melody on the music box. Then German bombs start falling around them. I get choked up everytime.
I don’t like to reflect on how different life would be, had my father-in-law not eventually escaped and survived.
German POW Camp
After his capture, dad and about 7,500 Americans were transferred to Stalag 4B Muhlberg Sachsen 51-13.
One of the largest POW camps in Germany during WWII, Stalag IV-B was located near the town of Muhlberg. Located on the Elbe River, the small German town is northwest of Dresden.
All three photos of Stalag IV-B were taken by Lutz Bruno. Shown above is the entrance to the POW camp.
Between 1939-1945 approximately 300,000 prisoners from over 40 nations passed through the camp. The American writer Kurt Vonnegut was one of them.
Street photo of the POW camp by Lutz Bruno.
More than 3,000 died — mostly Soviet POWs — mainly from tuberculosis and typhus. They are buried in a neighboring cemetery. Today, the camp site of Stalag IV-B has been transformed into a memorial area. One day, my husband and I hope to visit there.
POW camp guard tower photo taken by Lutz Bruno.
Transfer to Work Camp
When the Red Army liberated the camp on April 23, 1945, there were about 30,000 prisoners crowded in the camp. However, dad and about 25 other Americans were no longer there. They had been transferred to Bitterfeld, near Leipzig.
Stalag IV-D was a much smaller POW camp, comprised of just two buildings. For most of the war, the camp held only around 800 POWs. Most were assigned to work camps in factories, mines, railway yards, and farms.
When dad and the others arrived, they were stripped of their coats and boots and given Russian jackets and wooden shoes. They were forced to work at rifle point in an above ground coal mine. The hard labor and long marches in poor footwear left dad with damage and pain in his spine that lasted a lifetime, worsening as he aged.
Each morning all they were given to eat was coffee and one loaf of bread to share among the roughly two dozen men. Tall and lanky at nearly 6′ 4″, dad was near starving and lost a lot of weight.
Missing in Action
Meanwhile back at home, dad continued to be listed as missing.
Here is his high school graduation picture as it appeared in the local newspaper after the Battle of the Bulge.
My father-in-law did go on to survive the camps and a subsequent forced march. He had a harrowing escape behind enemy lines until making his way to American troops.
Dad lived because of a German soldier and elderly farmer. And, maybe a mother’s prayerful promise.
Power of Prayer
Anyone who met dad’s diminutive mother knew her as a force of nature. She also had a deep and abiding faith. When her son was missing in action, she made a pact with the Virgin Mary. Spare her son, and she’d say the rosary every day of her life. A promise she kept until she passed — just days shy of her 100th birthday.
That promise and her devotion is legendary in our family. It still gives me goosebumps!
During her funeral, my husband delivered the eulogy. He retold the story we all knew so well. When reflecting on grandmother’s long life, he also remarked how she smoked one or more packs of cigarettes a day, survived several bouts of cancer, anda potent Manhattan cocktail every afternoon, and remained sharp as a tact. Like I said, a force of nature lol!
Leaving the Past Behind
After the war, dad finished college, married, established his own business, and raised five children. My husband is the youngest of four boys. He is the love of my life and father of our two wonderful sons.
When my husband was growing up, dad never talked about his military service or time as a POW — and it was understood not to ask. Like many of his generation, they came home from the war and got on with their lives. War scars were buried deep.
It wasn’t until our sons innocently started asking him questions about the war, that he began telling the story — some 50 years later.
My husband and I froze in place, while we listened intently to dad calmly and quietly share what happened.
Much of dad’s experiences and how he felt I don’t know. What he shared with us was mostly factual, or stories about other soldiers he befriended. Grisly, more disturbing details were mostly santitized or left out.
I don’t think he wanted to remember or dwell on them. Dad had already spent a lifetime putting those experiences behind him. Some of those details we only learned from a magazine interview published a few months after he died.
Hitler was losing the war. The camp was crowded and food was scarce. One day, he and a group of prisoners were marched out of the camp. Then, they were ordered to spend the day digging trenches along the road.
As night fell, one of the German guards turned to dad and two other Americans. He explained that the trenches they had been digging were actually going to be their own graves. Come morning, all the prisoners were to be shot.
Then the soldier said he was going to have a cigarette, turn and gaze at the stars. It was the signal for the three of them to run. He took pity on the prisoners, spared their lives and let them escape. But, they were behind enemy lines, dressed as POWs, with no weapons or food. It must have been terrifying.
The trio made their way to the first farm they could find. There, an elderly woman agreed to let them sleep in her hayloft — if they agreed to take her young grandson with them. She had already lost other men in her family to the war, and worried he’d be conscripted by the German military.
Long Journey Home
Come morning, they headed for Switzerland with the young German. Eventually, they made their way to Camp Lucky Strike, a tent city for POWs in the north of France. Shortly after, they were transported home on an American Liberty ship with other POWs and hospital cases. The voyage on the converted cargo ship took about two weeks.
Three days from Boston the news came that the war had finally ended. V-Day took place on May 8, 1945.
Dad spent 60 days recovering from months of near starvation, before being reunited with his family.
Coming to Terms
After telling the pent-up story of his war experiences, dad seemed to find peace with it. He requested his POW medal and almost immediately gave it to my husband. It hangs proudly in our home.
Dad started attending division reunions, finding and making new friends with whom he had much in common. However, I don’t believe he ever reconnected with the other two POWs he escaped with. It would have been impossible to keep in touch in the aftermath of the war all those years ago.
He came to realize how proud his family was of him, and how total strangers were deeply interested and appreciative of his service and sacrifice.
Both our boys wrote their AP US History and SAT essays about the Battle of the Bulge and their grandfather — choosing him as the person they most admire.
During the last years of his life, the assisted living homes made a big deal of Veterans Day — especially dad being a POW. One arranged for him to speak at a local high school. The students’ response to his story left him elated.
It just so happened that the assisted living center was within walking distance of his Revolutionary War ancestor’s home. Peacock must have been smiling down on his descendent.
A Wonderful Life
Shortly before dad’s passing, he was interviewed about his war experiences by Phoebe Ministries. The organization operates the facility where he last lived, an easy walk from his eldest son’s home in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Dad on the cover of the Spring 2017 edition of Phoebe Ministries publication.
Although parts of the article were difficult to read, it also left us with an uplifting message from dad.
“I wish I could live my life over again. It has been wonderful and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
At 93 years of age, dad was at peace. Before starting hospice care, my brother-in-law set up a conference call with his five children — and me. He told us how much he loved us, and made his goodbyes. It was a great gift to his family, in that dad was at peace.
He never regained consciousness after that. For five days three of his sons and our two boys took turns at his bedside. They played Big Band, Sinatra and Irish music around the clock. Dad loved music, singing and dancing. He was an accomplished ballroom dancer. I am blessed to have had the last dance with him at our niece’s wedding.
An army chaplain who was also a priest, gave him last rites and paid tribute to his sacrifice as a POW. My husband said it was incredibly moving.
Dad was a happy soul and sweet man. A wonderful storyteller who also told the corniest jokes. He was a real charmer and an occasional flirt. And, he adored his family. We were his treasure and legacy. I’m absolutely sure he held up the line getting into Heaven, bragging to Saint Peter about his beloved family!
Honoring Our Veterans
Dad was laid to rest in Altoona with full military honors. Veterans of all ages from many different conflicts attended. I think the fact he had been a POW prompted many to come pay tribute. One of my husband’s brothers had served in the navy. He solemnly accepted the folded flag and rifle shell casings on behalf of the family.
My husband gave a wonderful eulogy during the funeral Mass. But it was our son’s remarks at the cemetery — the eldest grandchild — that moved total strangers to tears. Words that still ring true three years later, in a deeply divided nation.
“We live in a world of incredible capacity for good and shared prosperity, yet inexplicably mired in divisive narrow mindedness and inequity. In an age of such extraordinary wealth, opportunity and freedom, we struggle to find simple fulfillment in our lives. We no longer respect the perspectives of those who are different or embrace our fellow man.
75 years ago, my grandfather, like so many, left the safety and security of small town America, to fight halfway across the world. Millions of men from all walks of life, creeds and nationalities fought alongside each other as brothers for the basic liberties and humanity we take for granted today.
As we get caught up in the stresses of daily life and bitterness of today’s rhetoric, we could all benefit from some perspective. Let us not forget the sacrifices and selflessness of the generations that came before, who fought for the fundamental pillars of human decency.
Pop Pop – Thanks for being a hero to me, our family and the world. You will be forever missed, but never forgotten. Rest in peace.”
And then, he played the voicemail message his grandfather had left him on his birthday. Dad’s final goodbye in his own voice, telling us to to treasure every single day of life — the good and the bad.
Today and every day, a salute to all our veterans and to remembering that we are all fellow Americans.
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I’m not crying, you’re crying! Oh my, this really hits me hard. Your father-in-law’s story is so wonderful. Thank you for sharing it, Debbee. My Dad was a WWII veteran and would have been 102 this year. He never spoke of the horrors he experienced or the gory details of him losing his leg in the war. What we now know as PTSD was lived by so many of our relatives. They truly were the greatest generation. I still have two WWII veterans living – my mother’s brother and my mother’s companion of many years, 98 and 95 yrs old, respectively. My uncle is in hospice care, but my mother’s companion is still very much alert and active in mind (in nursing care). I will be honoring them and thank ALL veterans for their service today.
Rita, what say we share a box of tissues together? What a horrible experience for your dad, and to think he survived it back then is in itself remarkable. My father-in-law and your relatives worried about just surviving another day or the war, and then went on to live into their 90’s. It took me a couple of years to write a post that I thought would adequately tell dad’s story, and I am heartened to hear how warmly it is being received.
What a lovely tribute! You and your family were lucky to have such a wonderful man in your lives,
Thank you Lauren. I appreciate you taking the time to read dad’s story and comment.
Wow. Wonderfully written Debbie. Learned something about your husbands family I didn’t know. Thanking all vets for their service each and every day.
Aww thanks Elaine. I’ve chewed your ear off so many times since our college days, there’s not much you don’t know. Dad thought you were a sweetheart and loved when you’d visit.
Debbee ~ What a beautiful tribute to your beloved father-in-law. Thank you for sharing!
Linda, thank you for taking the memory journey with me.
What a wonderful tribute to a remarkable person! Thank you for sharing.
Very sweet of you to say Jane. Dad’s is one of countless stories of small town kids thrust into the horrors of war. Everyone one of them deserves our appreciation. It was an honor to share my father-in-law’s.
Debbee, This story was certainly worth posting and I am so glad you did. What an extraordinary man, life, and grandson’s eulogy! It reminded me so much of similar sacrifices of my own grandfather in WWI. It also reminded me of the book, Unbroken. It is a must read in one’s lifetime. All this puts our life in perspective. Your story, too, could be subject matter of a novel. Thank you for sharing your best post ever!
Wow, my best post — I’m thrilled you think so Maria! Wanted to do my father-in-laws story justice. His is one of many untold or unknown by so many — too many. Appreciate your grandfather’s service as well. Glad you reminded me of the book, as it has been on my “must read” list for far too long.
Great tribute! These stories need to be remembered by our country!
I’ve struggled to compose this post for several years, wanting to do dad’s story justice. Decided R’s elegant eulogy was far better than I could articulate. I’ll always remember your father-in-law’s funeral with admirals, etc. at Annapolis. Perhaps the most moving part for me was seeing all those cadets lining the road/bridge saluting — in the rain.
A beautiful tribute to a man who made wartime sacrifices and yet still knew that life was wonderful. Thank you for sharing his story as it touched my heart. My father was in the Royal Air Force of Great Britain in World War II but he never spoke of the war and the horrors he must have witnessed. We have so much to be grateful for the sacrifices of many brave individuals. May we remember them and all who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today…let’s not take them for granted!
Alayne, your kind words about touching your heart had me tearing up. Wow, being in the air force in Britain must have been incredibly dangerous and terrifying. Like you, appreciate all those brave individuals. And, the importance of our relationships with allies around the world in defeating evil.
Oh Debbee, what a loving and beautiful tribute. Such a testimony he had and lived daily. If only those of today who so want to degrade, divide and put asunder our nation could experience just a smidge of what these heroic men (and women) felt and lived and gave to their country, we could become the greatest nation on earth again.
My father was also of the Greatest Generation. He was sent from Camp Shelby in MS to England, and from there to France as replacement in Patton’s Army following D-Day. He was shot by a German sniper on his way to the front. The bullet hit his hand as he held his rifle across his chest. The fact that it hit the rifle probably saved his life.
My father was called to heaven at the age of 84. My husband sang “Another Soldier’s Coming Home”, “..Sing a welcome song, another soldier’s coming home, he faced the winds of sorrow, but his heart knew no retreat. He walked in narrow places, knowing Christ knew no defeat, but now his steps turn homeward, so much closer to the prize….another soldier’s coming home, another warrior hears the call he’s waited for so long…sing a welcome song, another soldier’s coming home.”
Thank God for men and women who have answered our nation’s call throughout the years, so that we might be free!
Rhonda, thank you for sharing your father’s story as well. To think the position of that rifle probably saved his life! How wonderful to have your husband sing those touching lyrics at his funeral.
Debbee, you made me cry. What a wonderful, caring tribute, but so much like you. My uncles received purple hearts, but never told us anything. It is so important to remember history and carry it forward. We live in a different world today. Everyone needs to be a little broke, a little hungry and a lot humble at some time in their life in order to be grateful.
Hope you are still on the mend and better each day. Christmas is coming.
Oh Myrna, reading your response to dad’s story made me reach for the tissues too. Reading what you said about what’s needed to be grateful really resonated. I think that’s why we also need to let children learn from their mistakes and see that there are consequences for their actions. My husband has always said, growing up, young people need to have summer jobs in service positions like as waiters, or in manual labor. Important too is experiences helping those less fortunate— like working at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, tutoring young people, etc. Those help to appreciate what you have and what is most important in life. I’ve always stressed to our sons that to those whom much is given, much is expected.
This moved me to tears Debbee. My grandfathers both served in WWII. One also fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was injured. Thank you for sharing the history and details. It’s so important for us to remember. Your son’s words were powerful. Oh how we could all benefit from some perspective! Thanking veterans today and always. I’m visiting today from the Party in Your PJs linkup. Have a wonderful day Debbee!
Thanks to both your grandfathers for their service Marielle, and I hope the injury wasn’t too serious or life-altering. It means a lot to me that dad’s story is resonating with others. In an odd way, my son’s words and hearing dad’s voice at the cemetery was not only uplifting but filled our hearts with joy as we cried our eyes out. Outside, the skies opened up and it poured rain so hard we had to wait 30 minutes to run to our cars.
These stories are so powerful to record and share. We have so much to be thankful for and owe a huge debt of gratitude to this brave generation! Thank you for posting!
Angie, thanks so much for reading dad’s story and taking the time to join in a salute to vets.
Okay… Major tears… What a lovely story about your father-in-law and I love that your son eulogized him so well. <3 I have watched Band of Brothers so many times now I can quote it. I saw Saving Private Ryan by myself at the theater in a row where two older men also sat, both WWII veterans. I came out crying for their pain! My own father was in Panama during the Korean War and served two 9 month tours in Vietnam, while my father-in-law was stationed in Alaska.
Thank you so much for sharing this story! It is today's #1 feature for Share Your Style #282. We need every story of our veterans told. Many hugs, Barb 🙂
Barb, my husband was so moved when I showed him the feature on his dad’s story and your comment. We are both very appreciative. Dear hubby and I saw Saving Private Ryan together. I tried to prepare and braced myself for all the bloodshed and violence. But, I was totally unprepared for the scene where the American soldiers have the German dig his grave. It struck too close to home with dad’s real life experience. I nearly became physically ill. Came home a total mess, and it stayed with me for weeks. I was so shaken by it, I made my father-in-law promise NOT to go see the movie.
My dad was too young to serve in any conflicts, but was in the navy reserves. He went on to work on the nuclear submarine program. Was your dad in the military while you were growing up? I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a family member serving in a war zone.
I actually cried reading this moving story about your brave father-in-law. What a special man he was to get through all the atrocities of being a POW, his eventual escape after digging his own grave, and his ability to be a good father and husband to his family after he came home. It is amazing what these men did for our freedom and it pains me to think that so many today do not appreciate all they have because of the sacrifices of men like your precious father-in-law. Thank you for reminding us all to keep these stories alive so that we might all remember that freedom is a gift from those who bravely fought before us. Many hugs, Tee
Tee, thank you for taking the time to read dad’s story. Deeply appreciate you kind and eloquent words.
After working at our local VA for 25 years, I managed to get thru your story without tears–but it’s only caz I was toughened up by so many other stories. What a lovely tribute to a brave man. My grandfather was a WWI vet; my dad a WWII vet who never talked about his experiences. We lost a lot of history not asking. Your family is lucky to have that preserved. My favorite WWII vet died several years ago and I still grieve that loss; he was better than a father.
Appreciate you working to care for our valued vets Kathy. Every single one has had experiences and stories worth preserving. But, I can understand how some of those may have just have been too traumatic or difficult to share. I imagine many wanted to put those experiences behind them. However, I think my father-in-law came to understand that by sharing he left a legacy about perseverance, sacrifice, faith and family.
Thank you for sharing your father-in-law’s story, Debbee. These kinds of stories remind us of our freedom and those who made it possible. It is such a beautiful, touching story.
Appreciate you taking the time to read dad’s story Pam. Writing it down took me several years to tackle.
Thank you for sharing this, Debbee. My dad was a WWII vet and I am so proud to tell people that. I just love to read stories of real life vets. We owe them so very much. Hugs
You should be Rachelle — I appreciate your dad’s service too! One of the most moving moments for me, was when we took dad to see the then newly finished WWII monument in DC. He was in a wheel chair. Hubby and one of his brothers, along with our sons and two nieces were all there. All these people kept coming up to dad and thanking him for his service. Two young men in uniform came up and saluted him and asked about his experiences as a POW. I think it really clicked with his then young grandchildren what he had sacrificed. With Veterans Day this coming Tuesday, I wanted to honor his memory with the post.
Oh Debee; what a wonderful story and tribute to your dad. My dad was also at stalag ivb. I never got the chance to know him. I was 2 1/2 mths when he died in a car accident after the war. So much pain to deal with and he never fully recovered. This was 1946. There are a lot of unanswered questions? Would love to have his total story to share. Just wonder if your dad ever met mine in the camp. I would love to think so that he had a kind friend to go to at times. Keep your tribute going!
Sybil, you are the only person who’s reached out that their relative was in the same camp. Was he also captured during the Battle of the Bulge? How horrible and tragic that he was killed in a car accident so soon after being released as a POW! I’m so very sorry for your loss. Did you now there’s a database of POWs? Did your dad ever receive his POW medal (I’m thinking not), or did you or your mom request it? I would also like to think they met and knew each other. Thank you for reaching out and sharing your dad’s story.
Thank you for sharing Debbee…my father served in the Army in WWII, the bitter cold war in Germany but like your FIL, did not want to talk about what he went through. We asked and when we did, he would look off into the distance with a look I will never forget. We did know that he suffered frostbite because they did not have warm boots. My uncle also served in the Army in the same War, at the same time… but he was in the Philippines fighting not only the Japanese but malaria and unbearable heat.
My husband was in the Navy during the Korean conflict, and his four brothers were all in the Navy as were my twin boys. The twins were in the Navy during the Gulf war so we know the sacrifices made by those who have gone before us. We will never forget
My goodness Kari, my thanks to the many men in your family who have served! If war wasn’t horrible enough, adding the perils of weather and disease, it’s amazing anyone survives whole. I’m sorry for you dad and uncle’s suffering. You must be so proud of them all, and especially your husband and boys! My BIL is one of three generations with Naval Academy connections. The observatory is named after his grandfather! We attended his father’s funeral at the chapel and burial on the island — he was a fighter pilot during WWII, even before there were ai craft carriers to land on! I’ll never forget the sight of plebs lining both sides of the road in salute all the way to the cemetery, planes flying overhead, taps and rifles. It was incrediably moving.