By Paula Dunn
One of the most interesting — and extraordinary — Hamilton County stories to come out of World War II actually took place near Hamburg, Germany.
Just days before Germany officially surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945, the Noblesville Daily Ledger printed a letter Mrs. Nellie Castor had received from her brother, Sgt. Joe Casey, who was serving with the 638th Tank Destroyer Battalion.
In the letter, dated April 15, Sgt. Casey told how a few days earlier he and another Noblesville soldier, Lt. Charles “Charley” Wann, had been riding into a German village their unit had just captured when Casey was startled to spot a familiar face.
That face belonged to Pvt. Gordon Brattain, a classmate of Wann’s who was also well known to Casey. Brattain had been a prisoner of the Germans for 19 months.
Sgt. Casey wrote:
“What a small world this is! To think that two guys from home would liberate another one from home deep in the heart of a country whose ruler once said we would only see as PW’s or slaves. Fate plays funny tricks, doesn’t it?”
The three young men had quite a reunion before Brattain was taken away to prepare for his journey home.
Pvt. Brattain had been overseas less than six months when he was captured in Italy during the fighting around Salerno in September, 1943.
After Brattain returned home, details of his experiences as a German POW came out.
When first taken prisoner, he spent six days crammed in a box car with 45 other soldiers, traveling from Italy to Munich. Although there’d been no room in his car to sit or lie down, Brattain considered himself fortunate because other cars had contained as many as 60 men.
For most of his captivity he was held in German prisoner-of-war camps, but due to his lower rank, he was also forced to work on German farms in East Prussia for several months.
He reported that although he hadn’t been “mistreated severely,” the prisoners never got enough to eat. At one point, a single can of meat served as the rations for six men for one week.
Brattain later told members of the local Red Cross chapter that food parcels sent to the prisoners by the International Red Cross had literally saved their lives by providing necessary nourishment in the form of such items as milk, chocolate and vitamins.
For Brattain, the mental torture was worse than the physical. The only news of the outside world the captives received came mainly from French slave workers and that wasn’t very reliable. He heard nothing from home for over a year.
His most terrifying moment came when some of the prisoners attempted to escape while they were being transferred from one camp to another.
This so angered the German sergeant in charge of the prisoners’ guards that the sergeant ordered six or eight of the prisoners to stand up. He then arranged a machine gun and gave every appearance of putting the POWs in front of a firing squad.
Luckily, a captain caught wind of what was going down and countermanded the sergeant’s order.
The last two months of Brattain’s captivity were the most physically trying. He and the other prisoners were forced to march over 500 miles across Germany as the Germans fled from the Russians. (The Germans did NOT want to surrender to the Russians.)
Only allowed to rest every fourth or fifth day, Brattain lost 30 or 40 pounds during that ordeal. (He gained the weight back after he was back in American hands.)
Just a little reminder of what it sometimes costs to keep those of us at home safe and free, and of why we observe Veterans Day.