Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Children of the Greatest Generation

I ran into Chuck and Janis (Jones) Hendrickson at the Memorial Day services in Northwood.  Chuck is recovering well from his illness and is looking very healthy.  He and Janis were all smiles during the day.  The next day Janis responded to an email about the service and happened to mention her Dad, Charlie, having served in WW II.  I had just heard that he had been a POW, so I asked Janis to confirm that, which she did.

Correct. Dad was in the National Guard. He was captured by the Germans in North Africa and was a POW in Poland for 27 months. He wrote a book of his war experiences in the late 80’s. My brother went to Poland and retraced Dad’s steps, seeing where he was actually imprisoned. How I would have loved to have gone with him!! Before Dad’s health began to decline he did lots of public speaking on his experiences and especially enjoyed being invited to tell his story to high school history classes.

I’m in the process of reading 4 years of letters back and forth between my dad and mom…and my dad and his parents – all of them during the war. Spellbinding. My dad was a gifted writer – they read like a novel.

Charlie owned the theater in Northwood for a number of years and may have been best known for his work as a public address announcer and emcee, for the church league softball in what is now Swensrud Park, and at high school football games.  I asked Janis if she could share some of his story with us, and she submitted the following.

My father, Charlie Jones, was a member of the 34th Red Bull Division of the U.S. Army and its 168th infantry in WWII. He was fighting the Germans in North Africa, when he, along with many other members of the nearly decimated 168th, was forced to surrender on Feb. 17. 1943. He became a Prisoner of War for 27 months. He was liberated on May 21, 1945 and was honorably discharged as Captain in February 1946. 
Official POW photo and snapshot on a Memorial Day mid-90s
at Sunset Rest Cemetery - original Army uniform

Dad was interned most of his time at Oflag 64, famous for holding General Patton’s son-in-law, John K. Waters. It was a small camp at Schubin, Poland. On capture there were only about 150 American officers in the 10-acre compound. By the time Oflag 64 was evacuated in January 1945, the roll call had reached 1,400. 

Dad was engaged to my mother during his imprisonment. Letters back and forth between the two of them were heartfelt and were lifelines for them both, especially my father. Our family recently came across these spellbinding letters which read like a novel.

The Red Cross and the YMCA were paramount in the well-being of the POWs. Through these two organizations, the prisoners were furnished reading material, musical instruments and sheet music, as well as food care packages to supplement the watered-down soup and stale bread provided by the Germans.

The prisoners amazingly organized their camp, setting up areas of administration, recreation and education, training and supply sections. Dad first served as company clerk, then was later moved to be in charge of phonograph music. He kept himself busy with the activities made available: a library, a theatre of sorts, lectures, recitals, plays, concerts and many types of school classes on almost any subject imaginable. Dad kept a log of all the books he read during his captivity and, if memory serves me correctly, it was around 1,000. He loved the classics of literature, philosophy, and religion but found the most peace in books of poetry.

The POWs could make most anything out of nothing. Our family had many mementoes Dad made including a toothbrush implemented from wood attached to many threads (better at mopping the teeth than actually brushing), and eating utensils he had whittled out of a few pieces of scrap wood. There was also a hand-woven coin purse he’d made from threads he’d acquired from scrap fabric with a closure button made from a prune pit in which he’d carved the letter “M” for Myrtle, my mother. His hands were busy for many months embroidering a large tablecloth my mother sent to him, which later graced our family dining table for every holiday. Many items have been donated to the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum in Johnston, Iowa.

While imprisoned, Dad was a member of a 17 man chorus. We’ve heard their actual recordings attained through the archives, and were thrilled to hear Dad’s name announced as a Bass member of the group. He also participated in many stage plays during his time at the camp.

My father kept a diary…Following are several excerpts:

December 31, 1944: As the year closes, I can look back and be thankful for many things. Health has stayed about fair level. I haven’t been too cold, having managed to keep from being too hungry, have had food from home and comparatively frequent assurance from home that my loved ones are well and still waiting for me and loving me. May God continue to bless Myrtle, Mom and Dad and family. And may I be worthy of continued blessings as much as the past. With hope and prayer for the future, it’s good bye to 1944.

The following entry was written after the Germans had marched the POWs over a period of months in the bitter winter weather to new locations to avoid the Russians, who were approaching and trying to liberate the POWs.

March 7, 1945 Been getting gradually weaker on a diet of bread and pea soup and ersatz tea. Sleeping on a handful of wet straw on 8 bed boards. Too cold to take off any clothes so I’ve had mine on since January 20th, save for one de-lousing. Skinny and weak as a cat.

Why was my father a survivor? First of all, he was an officer. He was not forced to work long hours on the Germans’ behalf. Second, the luck of the draw took him to camps with generally more humane leadership from the Germans than existed in other camps. In addition, he kept himself as busy as possible in the activities the camp had to offer, as well as his own handiwork, embroidery, etc. His values and growing religious beliefs were also clearly a factor. But above all else, Dad had something that kept him focused on the future: the woman he loved, her letters and pictures, and his faith that she would be there for him when he arrived home. And she was. The long wait was over. They were married 3 weeks after he arrived home on American soil, granting them 54 years together. Dad passed away September 10, 1999 at the age of 86.

Unlike many WWII veterans who chose not to discuss their time at war, my dad was always very verbal to his children about his experiences. I remember sobbing one evening when Dad sat all 5 of his children down to talk about what life was like for him as a POW. I couldn’t bear the fact that my father had endured such hardship. That was a child’s reaction. As an adult, I am thankful he was a POW in a fairly humane camp, and was not one of those many of our fallen heroes who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Dad constructed a mock-up of his camp which he took with him on his many lectures to area high school history classes over the years. I think he knew that the story must be told…that the world must not forget the atrocities war brings about. I’m very proud and thankful my father felt inclined to pass on such an important piece of his, and America’s, history. Mostly, I’m so glad he survived! He was a hero in my eyes!

Submitted by:

Janis (Jones) Hendrickson

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