“The Germans had the most beautiful horses,” Walter Rich of Union once told me. “We ate a lot of them.”

"God Bless America"

 

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,

Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free

Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,

As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer

God bless America, land that I love

Stand beside her and guide her

Through the night with a light from above

From the mountains to the prairies

To the oceans white with foam

God bless America, my home, sweet home

— Irving Berlin

Driving the shockingly congested roads and parking lots around the Bangor Mall on a recent dark winter afternoon, I suddenly found myself thinking about Walter, who died in 2016 at the age of 92.

Walter Rich was a ball turret gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress serving in the European Theater in World War II. His plane was shot down over Waterloo, Belgium, during a snowstorm March 4, 1944. Twenty years old at the time, he managed to bail out and parachute to the snowy field where he was immediately arrested by Nazi soldiers.

This was the beginning his ordeal as a prisoner of war, which would last more than a year.

You have to understand who Walter was. He was born in 1924 and grew up in the Depression. At the age of 9, he moved to Union. He attended the Yellow School, where he met his future wife. He liked to play winter sports, including snowshoeing, which he competed in at the carnival at the Snow Bowl, and speed-skating. His family attended a Methodist church, and more than just that, he was a man who professed Christian faith.

When Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, he was working at a grocery store on the Common in Union. He soon enlisted to serve in the Army Air Corps. The day after Thanksgiving 1943, he flew overseas in a B-17, buzzing the Union Common on the way. He was stationed in England, where the bombing raids over Germany were launched.

After he was captured, he spent months in prison camps, first Stalag Luft VI in Memel, Lithuania, and then Stalag Luft IV in German Pomerania, now part of Poland. He was in this second camp for Christmas 1944.

The allied POWs were not subjected to the same horrors the Nazis perpetrated on the Russians and Jews in the Holocaust. They followed, for the most part, the tenets of the Geneva Convention when it came to treatment of the airmen. However, the conditions were still very hard.

For one thing, the Germans hated the airmen in particular for bombing their cities. Walter described seeing airmen hanged and being marched through a town where the citizens threw bricks at the POWs.

In the camps, the prisoners kept their spirits up playing cards and sports. They used cigarettes as currency, and that helped Walter, since he didn’t smoke. They built radios out of Spam cans and smuggled parts, and listened to the news on the BBC. They circulated their own newspaper inside the camp and put on plays for each other to keep morale high.

I asked Walter what was the worst meal he ever had while he was in captivity.

“Every one,” he said. “Every one. When you picked the mice out of the stew, I called that the worst meal. All of them. They made these big vats of stew, and mice got right into them. They just flavored the stew. That’s the only meat that was in it. All the rest was slop.”

He described cheese full of maggots and bread that seemed to be made from sawdust. There was also, of course, the horsemeat. The only thing that kept them going were the packages from the Red Cross.

“Even at Christmas or Thanksgiving, we didn’t get a turkey or anything like that. We got a pill. That was our turkey dinner.”

He was in the camps June 6, 1944, when the D-Day invasion took place, and the POWs all thought they would be going home in two weeks. But he would remain a prisoner for almost another year, including an 87-day forced march in the dead of winter 1945.

He said something to me that I’ll never forget.

“Christmas Eve, 1944, just before we went on the march. The Russians were moving, coming east, coming in our direction. …We had four different men of the cloth in the camp and everybody went to church. So Christmas Eve we had the Christmas Eve service, and we were all singing Christmas carols with a guard posted at the back door, and all of a sudden we burst into ‘God Bless America.’ They tried to stop us from singing, but the more they tried to stop us, the louder they were singing, so finally they just gave up until we finished, and they told us all to go back to the barracks.

Apparently, that night too, they allowed the men to build a bonfire, which was highly unusual during a war, when you didn’t want to be spotted by planes.

“They let us build a huge bonfire out in the middle of the compound. At midnight we were still out there. There were guards and dogs circling around behind us all over the place. We sat there singing and it was well below zero. The stars were out. Beautiful night. You do a lot of thinking when you’re sitting there that far from home and haven’t seen anybody for a long time. I’ve always said that was one of those moments when you can get as close to God as you want to get. …Beautiful starry night.”

Walter came home safe. He served as Union’s postmaster for 30 years, and volunteered time in service to his community. He was married to his wife, Barbara, for 71 years.

In many ways, he put the war behind him, but I imagine every year when he saw Christmas lights he was reminded of the stars above Stalag Luft IV.

Editor Daniel Dunkle of The Courier-Gazette lives in Rockland. Send in your stories, photos and memories via email at: ddunkle@villagesoup.com; or snail mail to: 91 Camden St., Suite 403, Rockland, ME 04841. Hand-written notes are welcome and appreciated.

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