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RESPONSE TO TERROR

A War-Torn Couple Pass the Test of Time

Relationships: A soldier's imprisonment during WWII only served to strengthen the bond with his young wife.

November 18, 2001|REBECCA COOK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Small-town schoolteacher Reta Schwisow was 21, married for three months, when she got the news she was dreading: Her husband was missing in action.

It was Aug. 10, 1944. Two weeks passed before she learned her 20-year-old husband, Lauren, was alive; it would be almost another year before he was released from a German POW camp and returned to her.

That year tested the young couple's strength, as Lauren suffered near-starvation while Reta kept a brave face for her in-laws.

Reflecting on how they and their fledgling marriage survived the war, they offer some words of wisdom, and maybe comfort, for military families separated by today's war against terrorism.

"Shared hardship," Reta says, "is perhaps as strengthening as shared joys."

Lauren and Reta grew up together in the tiny farm town of Western, Neb. Childhood friendship blossomed into college romance, and they were going steady by the time Lauren enlisted in the Army Air Corps in December 1942.

They were married May 8, 1944, in a cavernous Methodist church that dwarfed their 13-member wedding party. Lauren went to war on July 10, and Reta taught grade school and wrote to Lauren almost daily.

His letters were just as frequent, at first. When they stopped, she told herself he was probably just busy flying.

Her rationalizations--and whatever thin veil separated the young woman from war--vanished on Aug. 10, when her father and her minister approached her with somber faces.

She didn't scream or faint. Instead, she thought of Lauren's mother, and of her own mother. For them, she stayed in control.

Alone, she whispered bargains to God: Bring Lauren home safely, and I'll serve you for the rest of my life.

Behind enemy territory in Austria, the B-24 plane that Lauren co-piloted was shot down on his first mission. As the plane burned, he parachuted out.

He landed in a meadow and turned to face an old man with a rifle, who fired at him and missed. With no weapon and no cover, Lauren surrendered.

"For me the war was over before it had really begun," he says.

He and 35 other captured airmen were taken to a large stone prison. He later learned it was Mauthausen, a concentration camp where the Nazis killed 100,000 Jews and Russian POWs.

The terrible screams he heard at night were enough to make him relieved when he was moved elsewhere. After an unproductive session with a German interrogation officer, he was sent to Stalag Luft One, a POW camp in Barth, a Baltic Sea fishing village.

Jan. 31, 1945.

"Sweetheart, winter slipped back on us again this week. Even so, I know the cold is nothing compared with that where you are. I finally found your town on the map today. . . . "

Reta devoured information about the war and searched maps of Europe to find Barth. In a way, she felt like a prisoner of war too.

"I'm still hoping it won't be long before you come home. It seems years since you left that Sunday morning. I live for the day you'll once again frown upon my delight in chewing celery. Oh honey, I love you. . . . "

She had heard rumors that the Germans were planning to kill all prisoners of war. She cracked a joke to lighten Lauren's mood.

"You know how a moron catches a rabbit? Don't huh? Well, he stands behind a tree and makes a noise like a carrot."

As the small space on her "Prisoner of War Post" paper ran out, she signed: "All my love--ever--Reta."

During the harsh winter of 1944-45, thin German-issued blankets in uninsulated cabins didn't begin to keep prisoners warm.

Boredom, hunger and cold plagued them. Lauren took classes led by other prisoners, and learned to play bridge from cards made of cheese cartons.

They were on what Lauren calls "the German diet plan"--about 800 calories a day. They got five or six thin slices of German bread, a few potatoes or rutabagas, dried vegetables and occasionally some barley gruel with weevils.

Everyone talked about their dream meal. Lauren described to his fellow prisoners a glorious stack of hotcakes, butter melting down the sides.

He dreamed of Reta too, and wrote to her often.

April 27, 1945.

"My darling, First off I'm well. Trying to get into condition from a very inactive winter. Next, we are eating well. . . . The days of the famine are slowly leaving from our war-torn bodies. (Classy saying.)"

A big supply of food arrived at Stalag Luft One that spring, and Lauren told Reta all about it.

"It's really swell, i.e. the change I mean. Rolled oats, big chocolate bars, and a big can of jam."

He wrote about playing softball in the yard. Then back to food:

"Fulton and I made a cake with white flour. Really good. Things are looking good. Hope to see you soon. With all my undying love--Yours always--Lauren."

On April 30, 1945, Lauren looked up and saw the guard posts were empty--Stalag Luft One was liberated.

The prisoners destroyed the fences around the camp. Some walked west toward Allied lines. Lauren stayed, as ordered by American leaders.

Finally, on May 13, he boarded a B-17 and headed home.

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