September 19, 2020
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Free at Last

Wallace Graves was young, educated, and newly married when he was captured by the Nazi Germans in World War II. Here, he reflects on spending six months in a prison camp
A Good LifeA Good Life
Wallace Graves in his home at Johnson Place.

The 89-year-old Wallace Graves, former University of Evansville president, has only one favorite memory. It was caught in a photograph, and according to Graves, it was a picture worthy of the Smithsonian Institution. “It deserves a place right up there with the picture of the planting of the American flag on Iwo Jima,” he wrote in his 207-page memoir Don’t Fence Me In. “In it, I am part way down the steps with my arms outstretched toward the most beautiful girl in the world.” The most beautiful girl was his wife, Barbara, whose one hand was saving the life of her new hat blowing away from the propeller back draft of the plane Graves arrived on, as the other reached desperately for her husband. It had been 10 months since they had embraced each other, and more than six of those months had been without a word of communication. “Of all the memories of my life, that which is enshrined in this photograph is, and always will be, the most cherished and evergreen,” he wrote. After months in a prison camp under the Nazi Germans, he’d finally gotten his happy ending.

Before the ending came this beginning: In June 1944, Graves, barely a newlywed, left to fight Nazi Germans in France after D-Day. He returned in April 1945, with a story few survived to tell.

Graves was 19 when the United States entered World War II, but the young political science major was more concerned with finishing his degree at the University of Oklahoma. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Graves opted for Advanced Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), which allowed him to complete his undergraduate before commissioning as an Army officer. That was his plan. Or so he thought.

Graves graduated as expected in May 1943, but instead of Officer Candidate School with artillerymen in Fort Sill, Okla. — where all but eight of his graduating ROTC class were headed — he was shipped to Killeen, Texas, to join the Tank Destroyer Corps. “You’ll like the Tank Destroyers,” one colonel told Graves when the grad tried to switch schools. “They’re called the ‘suicide branch of the service.’”

For six weeks, Graves tried to change his orders, but internal communication was insufficient. “I was beginning to see that there was a serious malfunction in communications between me and my Uncle Sam,” he wrote.

Graves was sent to Camp Phillips in western Kansas with a cannon company in the 318th Regiment of the 80th Infantry Division. He became a forward observer, a role that carried him into the front lines with the infantry unit in order to relay information back to artillery. While at Camp Phillips, Graves took a week’s leave around Thanksgiving in 1943, a leave he dubbed the most important event in his life, “if one excludes my birth.” His destination: his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. His motive: marriage. After Greyhounding it to Fort Worth, he married Barbara, and the two briefly honeymooned in Dallas.

Soon, he was off to Yuma, Ariz., for warfare training with his cannon company, then Fort Dix, N.J., for more training, and next to England on July 1, 1944. Not long after that, Graves was on Normandy’s Omaha Beach, still strewn with the debris of D-Day. “Entering stage left, we would begin to play our roles in the denazification (removing of Nazis from official positions) of France,” he wrote.

In spearheading the Allied drive across France, Graves’ unit passed through scores of small country towns, physically undamaged by the war, where residents cheered, waved flags, and threw flowers at the passing soldiers. Taking part in the celebration, Graves stood up in his Jeep and waved to the crowd. But as was tradition for him thus far in his career, this moment of comfort ended abruptly. In the midst of his prince-like waves, a hard, green apple met his nose. “I have never felt such pain,” he wrote. The injury “did not qualify me for a Purple Heart,” he says. He couldn’t see straight for the next 30 miles.

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