On Veterans Day, I’d like to pay tribute to my dear father-in-law, a World War II veteran and POW.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Happy Childhood

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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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.

Escape

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
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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.

Common Good

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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