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A Tribute to My Uncle on Veterans Day

Getty/Hulton Archive
Getty/Hulton Archive

I guess I was about 12 or so when I learned that my Uncle Clay had been a Prisoner of War in World War II. Naturally, I was fascinated and wanted to hear all about it, but, like many war vets, my uncle didn’t talk much at all about the war. Instead of telling me about his experiences, he provided something that was far more interesting. It turns out that he kept a diary while he was in prison.

My Uncle Clay was captured by the Germans on the very first day of the Battle of the Bulge. To this day, I’m amazed that he wasn’t killed on the spot. Clay told me that there was a group of German soldiers charging toward him and, not knowing what else to do, he threw a hand grenade in their general direction. He said he felt a blow to his head, and when he came to, he was a prisoner. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Why they didn’t kill him is anyone’s guess. One can only assume that, even in the heat of battle, a certain amount of humanity still exists.

My Uncle was taken to Stalag 4B in Muhlberg, Germany. Muhlberg is a very small town just east of Lepzig. He remained there for a relatively short period of time. I believe he was a prisoner for about 6 months. Thankfully, Muhlberg was taken by the Americans, and my uncle was freed.

One day, I asked my uncle about his experiences in the POW camp. Instead of giving me an answer, he got up from his chair and went into the bedroom. When he came out, he handed me a tattered diary, and told me that it might interest me. It turns out that my uncle kept a diary the whole time he was a POW. He told me that, if the diary had been found, that the consequences would have been very bad.

When he was taken to the camp, he had on a brand new pair of boots. The Germans took his boots, and gave him rags to tie to his feet. It was in this condition that they marched through the snow for days. He had problems from that experience for the rest of his life.

It has been decades since I read that diary, but the experience has stayed with me all these years. Frequently, Uncle Clay would mention what they had to eat on a certain day. Most of the time, it was soup made from boiling potato peelings. I’m sure there was very little potato in a bowl of that soup. It was on these meager rations that the prisoners had to do a full day’s work.

He didn’t mention a lot of cruelty on the part of his German captors, but the very experience of being taken a prisoner stayed with him for the rest of his life. The main way the memory manifested itself was in the form of nightmares. They didn’t know much about PTSD back then. They referred to the condition as “shell-shocked.” It all boils down to the same thing.

For all those terrible experiences, my uncle fought the good fight his entire life. He was quite a guy who believed in doing what was right and just. Even prior to knowing about his experiences in the war, I always had a lot of respect for my uncle. What a character! He was full of life, and a great fishing partner. Even if he did always make me row the boat!

Here’s an interesting sidenote: The day after my uncle was captured, the Germans captured another American G.I. He was only in the camp for a few days, and was shipped off to another camp where most of the POWs were fliers. The man taken prisoner was a budding writer who later wrote of his experience as a POW in a book called “Slaughterhouse 5.” Yep, Kurt Vonnegut was in prison with my uncle. Now, there’s a claim to fame!

God bless all our veterans. It doesn’t matter if you served in war or peace. Thank you for your service to our country.

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