After doing some research on the browncountyhistory.org website, I am prepared to tell a story my father shared with me this weekend.
We were discussing Andy Andrews and his book, The Heart Mender. The book is a story that includes a history lesson on the use of German U-Boats off the coast of the United States and particularly in the Gulf of Mexico near Orange Beach, Alabama where Mr. Andrews and his family reside.
I asked my father while we they visited our home on Sunday if he had any memory of reports of German U-Boats being in the Gulf of Mexico during World War II. He nodded and said, “Oh yes. Haven’t you heard that they just found one that was sunk up near Boston and are thinking of bringing it up.”
Well, frankly, NO. I had not. But, interesting that it would be recently shared information. This question launched my father into to his classic storytelling of life on the farm his family owned near Brownwood, Texas. He spoke of how his father had tried to join the military three times, but he had been classified 4F and disqualified for enlistment due to flat feet, his occupation as a butcher and the five children and wife he had at home. And that is when it happened. He said, “You know I remember a time when he met with some men from Camp Bowie about buying some really nice white sand that bordered the edge of our property down there in Brown County.”
He continued to weave the tapestry of story as only my father can. “He had agreed to sell them a portion of that sand and they had some Japanese POW’s come out and shovel that sand into those trucks.
“So my dad came in and got me, Mickey and Ned and said, ‘Boys, go down there and pick about three of those watermelons out and bring them up here. Then we’ll take them down there for the workers.’ So we went down and got the melons and took them up to the edge of the farm. Of course, the guards that were assigned to them would not let you get real close, but Dad cut the watermelon and they let the men come up and get it.
“I remember this one little bitty guy, he was an old man, but he was little you know. He came up and as he sat eating that watermelon big old tears were rolling out of his eyes.” At this point my dad got choked up and began to cry. “The guard who served as an interpreter for them said, ‘He is crying because he has it better here than his family does at home. He says that his family is lucky to get a small cupful of rice to eat a day.'”
My eyes welled with tears as my father shared this poignant memory with me of my grandfather’s kindness and the way it blessed someone who, at the time, lived as a Prisoner-of-War and an enemy of the United States of America. I said, “Grandpa didn’t even know what he was doing. Did it affect you this strongly even then?”
My dad nodded vigorously. “Oh, yeah. It was a really sad moment.”
I asked, “How did it affect Grandpa?”
He said, “Well you know Dad, he shrugged it off and went on.”
From the Brown County History website I learned that Camp Bowie opened for POWs on
July 10, 1943 and housed between 2,500 – 3,000 German enlisted men and officers from Rommell’s Afrika Korps. However, some reports from local historians recalled that Japanese POWs were housed south of Camp Bowie during that time near Austin Avenue.
But, what I know about my grandfather suggests to me that he also was deeply touched by this man’s response to his gift. Even if he never expressed it. Grandpa was a giant of a man named Ernest who worked as not only a butcher but a farmer and rancher most all his life in Brown County, then in Ballinger and finally in Merkel, Texas where I remember visiting him. He raised five children with his wife, Callie, who mostly worked alongside him in the family businesses.
The first of his five children were born in the mid 1930s during the Great Depression when it is reported that he would leave the house walking to work before sunrise and return after sunset working for only a dollar a day. My grandfather understood the value of hard work and he raised my father and his two brothers working the farm and meat processing businesses he ran right by his side every day of their young lives.
I remember my grandfather ate two chicken friend steaks prepared by my grandmother each day at lunch. Now, when I say prepared for lunch – I do mean there were at least two or three other meats provided along with about five or six sides and several desserts. And again, this is for the midday meal. Anyway, my mother had my plate and asked what I had wanted to eat that day. I told her “Chicken Friend Steak.”
She told me those were my grandfather’s and that I would have to choose something else. My grandfather insisted she give me one of his steaks, but she refused to let me have it and so no one ate chicken fried steak that day. My grandfather allowed them to sit on the plate all through lunch and dumped them in the slop bucket to take to his hogs later that evening.
He also came to visit us when he had surgery in the 80s and gave away all the change he had in his pockets to my brothers and I before he went to the hospital. He had a strong work ethic and believed one should work hard and earn what they received, but he also believed in reward and knew what it was like to work hard and receive little in return.
My grandfather had a hard outside, but he also had a soft heart expressed so beautifully in his kindness to Japanese POWs send to work on his farm in the 1940s. My father was somewhere between four and six years old at the time and the experience is fresh for him even today at the age of 71 years old.
I encourage you to visit the link to the Brown County History website and read the interesting stories shared about this time in our nations history and the heroic kindness paid Prisoners-of-War. This is the mark of a great country and great people and reminds me that this kind of heroism is often lost sight of in the empty rhetoric and political wrangling that takes place at our nation’s capital. One report states that the German POWs have written and expressed gratitude for the kind treatment they received while held at Camp Bowie.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Luke 6:35 (NKJV)