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Independence Day for Prisoner #319033
by Gilda Griffith Brown



July 4th is traditionally a day of celebration, thanks and reflection, but this year it held an even deeper significance due to a phone call from my niece, Rhonda, who requested to see any keepsakes that belonged to her grandfather and pertained to his army days. She was especially interested in doing research on his Prisoner of War experience and wanted to know all that I knew about this time in my daddy’s life.

My mother had revealed the few details Daddy related to her when he was first discharged; the rest was learned in bits and pieces throughout my childhood when alcohol lowered his inhibitions and brought forth the words and tears that always lived just below the surface of his ordinary and sane life. His war experience was something not spoken of other than at those dreaded times when we glimpsed into his hell and shared his survivor’s guilt and recriminations, felt his pain and remembered with him those ice cold memories.

He was captured while taking part in a patrol that crossed into Germany from France late one frigid night in the winter of 1945. Approaching a frozen creek bank, night suddenly became day when my daddy’s foot found the trip flare hidden just beneath the snow. There followed gunfire, and all of the men except Daddy fell dead upon that frozen and foreign ground. Disoriented and hunted, he was unable to get back to the American lines and awoke in a barn under the prongs of a German farmer’s pitchfork.

Four months as a prisoner of war followed. He was initially put to work in a munitions factory. "They put me to work making damn burp guns," was how he put it. Not wanting any part of that, he escaped, only to be caught and thrown into a frozen hole with no clothing and little food. Double pneumonia and malnutrition followed. According to his own notes, he went missing on January 8th and was liberated from the prison camp on April 14th. He wrote in his scrapbook that the POW's heard gunfire on the 13th of April and the camp was liberated the next day.

Daddy felt that many suffered much more than he, (and many did), and he would never have thought of himself as being part of the greatest generation. To him, he just answered his country’s call. Though he was interviewed by a government official investigating war crimes, he never shared one word of that conversation. He always insisted he should have died on that cold German ground; no one could ever convince him any different.

A few months after Desert Storm reached its conclusion, the Second World War ended for my daddy. Alone and sober, he sat down in his favorite chair early one August morning, put a revolver to his head and, after over 40 years, followed his buddies.

When Rhonda arrived, I told her what I knew of his service and then opened the old flower-decorated tin box that held so much of Daddy’s past, discovering something I had not remembered seeing before. Resting next to his Rainbow Division book and a few medals was an old tin dog tag. The dog tag was a rather primitive looking thing with a filthy old string strung through two holes. The ends of the string, where it had been cut from around Daddy’s neck, had been retied years ago before the tag was stored away. A little less than 1 ½ inches in length and over 2 inches wide, the tag was divided, the top from the bottom, by perforations with this twice impressed inscription: Stalag IV B Nr. 319033.

Maybe I had noticed this tag before but had not really seen it for what it was. This Independence Day, I took a good look. I held it in my hands and felt the impression; I saw the grimy, sweat stained string that once had lain against my daddy’s young, unwashed and emaciated body, and I knew that Prisoner # 319033 was and is every man and woman who ever sacrificed for the cause of freedom.

Some may maintain Daddy’s death was a dishonorable thing, and I hated that he died the way he did, but as I stood in the cemetery while they fired a 21 gun salute, my broken heart rose with pride. My eyes wandered out among the headstones, and I saw a little black boy standing at attention in the background. Rigid and unnoticed by most, he held his hand in a salute. Knowing Daddy, I knew he would have been more honored by that than by the ceremony taking place.

I have often wondered about that child. Did he grow up and serve his country in a branch of the service? I may never know the answer, but I do know freedom is never free and every generation has to pay a price. But, oh how sweet is LIBERTY.

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Gilda Griffith Brown is a retired nurse living in Canton, Mississippi. Besides writing for USADEEPSOUTH, she has written for Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. She has also authored, compiled and published The Scofield Letters: Texas Pioneers, a history based on old family letters.

Click this link to read another of Gilda's stories here at USADS: "Mind Dancing"

You may contact Gilda at this e-mail address.


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