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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Free at Last

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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On Sept. 14, 1944, at 9:30 p.m., just when Graves thought he was going to get a good night’s sleep, his unit was called upon to prevent a possible German counterattack on a hill they had secured. Disgruntled by the interruption, Graves and two others began a silent three-mile march in darkness. They came upon what looked like an abandoned German machine gun emplacement, fixed with deep trenches that would become their beds for the night.

The men took turns keeping watch while the others slept. Gunfire woke Graves. He radioed their company headquarters for an update, but the operator couldn’t hear him. When daylight broke, Graves noticed the Nazis that stood down the hill from them. They were trapped. After scheming plans for escape, they finally decided waiting in the trench was their only shot at survival — until a hand grenade joined them. They jumped from the trench, completely unarmed, and were greeted by rifles to their spines. Graves knew that often prisoners were shot within the first minutes of capture, so as those minutes passed without a bullet to the head, he began to regain hope. “The longer you can manage to stay alive, the more normalcy sets in,” he says.

In the hands of the Germans, Graves noticed the men in uniform, the mess equipment, the field stoves, and other essential materials that came standard on any military encampment. They were the same as with his unit, yet somehow different. “It was an odd experience — like Alice in Wonderland really — to be in one world and then suddenly in another world where the language was different, the uniforms were different, the odors were different,” Graves says. After the three were searched, they were pulled in separate directions. Graves never saw the others again.

After a pointless interrogation — Graves gave them zero information — the Nazis moved him to a redistribution center for about three weeks. After that, he was sent to various camps before coming to Stalag III-C, a prison camp outside the town of Kustrin, Germany (a city now divided between Germany and Poland). He waited there for the remainder of his six-month imprisonment.

Throughout those months of living in long, narrow barracks with 35 other unbathed men, Graves grew hungrier, skinnier, and dirtier. They only were permitted to bathe twice during the entire six months, once being the day they arrived at Stalag III. Graves knew his priorities were bigger than a hot shower, and he kept his mind on escaping. He wanted to let Barbara know he was alive. All she was told was he was missing-in-action. An uncertainty, Graves says, she carried with indomitable faith. “My wife had to bear the burden of keeping everybody’s spirits up — including her own,” he says.

At 5 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1945, the prisoners awoke to a camp exploding in excitement. Voices over the loud speakers, which were rarely used, commanded everyone to prepare for immediate departure. The commander of the prison camp had fled from the Soviets the night before with his family, and with their leader gone, the Nazi staff seemed to panic. The prisoners were forced into columns of two and marched out of Stalag III-C onto a highway. Silently, the men marched for the next two hours until they heard gunshots. In the front of the line, a Soviet Union reconnaissance group shot at the parade of men. Under siege, the German guards fought back and left their post beside their assigned prisoners.

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Free of the Germans’ watchful eyes, Graves’ chance to escape had finally come. He took it, dashing to the farmland on his right with a few other POWs beside him. Because they had no idea where to go, the soldiers went back to the deserted Stalag III. It was a place to sleep. Three days later, Graves and a band of men marched again, this time without guards — and still without a clue of where they were headed. They moved by foot, by boxcar, or by bicycle, passing through towns filled with drunken Soviet soldiers who proved to be of disappointingly little help.

The escaped prisoners decided on Warsaw, Poland as their goal, hoping there would be Allied headquarters there. “For the next two months, we gypsied across Poland,” Graves says, eventually making it to Warsaw, which then led them to Odessa, a Polish city left with only a few elderly folks who had been broken by war. There, relief was granted. Among the POWs that had wandered into Odessa was an Airforce colonel. He was able to negotiate with the Soviets to let them board a British ship that was destined for Egypt. Graves spent a week in Egypt, where an Army supply branch met them; then a week in Naples, Italy, acquiring new records; and then to Boston. “I was one of the first 200 Americans, roughly, who was able to get out of Europe and back into American hands while the war was still going on,” he says.

Graves reached Fort Worth at the end of April 1945. Although he’d been stateside for more than a week in Boston, he had yet to see his bride. After a long train ride, multiple stops, and a last-minute flight, Graves saw her. With her hat askew and arms outstretched, Barbara reached for him. He reached for her. The war had taken precious months from the newlyweds, and Graves was eager to wash his hands of the Army. “I don’t even think I wrote a letter of thanks,” he says with a laugh. But more than 60 years later — after children, grandchildren, and a successful career in teaching and administration — Graves counts his blessings. “As I look back on it,” he says, “just by some chance and happy fortune, it’s been a wonderful life, and I wouldn’t trade any of it.”

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