Two things are on my mind today: veterans and gratitude.

Longtime readers may recall previous column references to my great-uncle, Don Phillips, a Chenoa native and World War II veteran who died in 1995.

He was my grandmother’s younger brother, a handsome man with a genuine smile and a passion for life.

During the Second World War, Don was a prisoner of war at two German POW camps. He was captured in 1943 after his B-17 bomber went down over occupied France.

During this time, he wrote several letters to his parents in Chenoa which are highlighted in an ebook, “Don’s Great Escape,” edited by his niece, Theresa Ripley.

She describes it: “He was sent to Stalag Luft III made famous by the 1963 movie 'The Great Escape,' which chronicled the tunneling and escape efforts of the prisoners. Equally dramatic to the tunneling story is the story of evacuation of this camp later in the war.”

He wrote: “My first look confirmed my worst suspicions. As we approached the massive barbed-wire enclosure, the sight of the blood-red Nazi swastika billowing arrogantly above the gate stifled any hope I had. Inside I could see huddles of men, looking at us in a wistful, silent sort of way. It was as though we were one step nearer freedom than they, by mere virtue of the fact we were still outside the final fence that was to bound our world.”

Life continued in a bleak and miserable manner for nearly two years. All the while, Don was writing when possible.

As the Russian and American troops advanced beyond German lines, the Nazis evacuated the stalag on Jan. 28, 1945, forcing the prisoners to walk four days to another camp. After walking in subzero weather and being transported by railroad boxcars in deplorable condition, Don and his fellow prisoners ended up in Stalag VIIA at Moosburg. There the conditions were even worse with no sanitation facilities and very little food.

By spring, U.S. General Patton’s Army was rumored to be close by. Don wrote, “On the morning of April 29 we watched from the camp as the German swastika atop the Moosburg Town Hall, a mile away, was lowered, and in its place, and billowing softly in the April breeze, up went the Stars and Stripes, seen for the first time in so many, many months. Never will I see a more beautiful sight and never have I seen so many grown men cry. It was probably the most moving experience I have ever witnessed.”

Minutes after the Allied forces captured Moosburg, a U.S. Army tank mowed down the barbed wire gates of the prison camp.

“Even though we hadn’t budged an inch from where we were, suddenly we were home … we were among friends,” he said.

Don’s account is one of many stories which demonstrate the commitment and dedication of our servicemen and -women. They stand the watch for our freedom. We owe all veterans a debt of gratitude which is impossible to repay.

Uncle Don viewed the raising of the U.S. flag in Germany as one of the defining moments of his life. Years later, when he attended events and saw people react to the national anthem with boredom and apathy, he remembered the power of the Stars and Stripes that day in 1945.

“If you have never lost your freedom,” he said. “It is a thing taken for granted, perhaps even laughed at or scoffed by some. For them, I have only pity.”

Thank you to each and every U.S. veteran.

More than 55,000 copies of “Don’s Great Escape” have been downloaded. The book is free on Apple, Kindle and PDF. There is a 99-cent charge on Nook. You can find it at http://thinkpint2.com/ebooks/

Contact Susan Hazlett at susanrhazlett@yahoo.com or write to her in care of The Pantagraph, 301 W. Washington St., Bloomington, IL 61702-2907.


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