Road to freedom paved with suffering of POWs

Part I in a series

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Days before being liberated by Gen. George Patton's army, Wright Swanay of Elizabethton had been just one in a sea of faces at a prisoner of war camp in Moosburg, Germany. Now, weak and half starved, covered with lice, and still wearing the same clothes he had worn since his capture, he stepped off a plane in Paris and experienced his first taste of freedom in 10 months.
   "There were Red Cross girls there with coffee and donuts, and that was the best coffee, the best donuts, and the prettiest girls I ever saw. I don't know if they were pretty or not, but then they looked pretty!" he said.
   More than 14,000 American soldiers died while prisoners of war during World War II. In all, 130,201 Army, Air Corps, Navy and Marines were captured, and the remains of 78,773 more were never recovered.
   As of January 2003, of all the U.S. conflicts, World War II led in the number of U.S. soldiers captured, dead, or missing, followed by Korea, WWI, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. While a staggering number, it is also impersonal; for numbers alone cannot possibly tell the tale of the anguish and suffering these Americans endured at the hands of the enemy.
   Swanay and Sonny Mottern, also of Elizabethton, were both captured while serving their country in different branches of the military during WWII. The two men grew up in Carter County where they met and became friends. Later, when the war came, their paths crossed again, this time on a different shore. Now well over 60 years later, they still share that bond of friendship.
   Mottern, who will be 83 in June, was a member of the 15th Infantry, 3rd Division, and was drafted into Patton's Army in December 1943 at the age of 24. After receiving training in Florida, they put him on a ship and sent him to Naples, Italy, as a replacement -- or more appropriately, "fodder," he said. "We joined the 15th Infantry, 3rd Division in France and made our first contact," he said.
   He was in on the invasion of southern France, was captured Dec. 19, 1944, and held in a prisoner of war (POW) camp in Germany 132 days. His son, Sonnie Bill, was born while Mottern was a POW.
   Swanay, now 83, was working at the Bemberg plant in Elizabethton when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He was 21, single, and a prime candidate for the military. "I knew I would have to go," he said. He joined the Air Force and was sworn in on July 2, 1942. Following training in San Antonio, Texas, he was classified as a bombardier "because that's what they needed," he said.
   He graduated flight school in October 1943, got married, and shipped out to Gowan Field for combat training. His next stop was Italy, where he joined the 15th Air Force as a replacement crew member. He was captured July 2, 1944, while flying his 39th mission on a B-24 and saw five prison camps before being liberated by Patton's army on April 29, 1945.

Mottern's capture

   The big battle for Mottern's company took place in Kolmar Park in Singlesham, France, southeast of the Battle of the Bulge. The objective: Take Hill 151. The hill actually was a mountain, and taking it turned out not to be a problem because the Germans had backed down into the village.
   "The planes came over and bombed them all day," Mottern said. He was in a foxhole watching the bombing when his captain came up to him and told him he had just been promoted to buck sergeant. "I knew what that was because the buck sergeant just got killed before we got up on the mountain. But I wasn't afraid," he said, looking at Swanay.
   "You didn't have time," Swanay said.
   "No, I didn't have time because they gave me a job to do. I was supposed to bring up the rear of the company. It was 4 o'clock when we started to take the little village. The platoon on the right all got killed with mortar. The one on the left got killed with machine guns. We had 19 men left before we could even get to the first building, and that was as far as we went," Mottern said.
   While on the road, headed for shelter inside a cathedral, Mottern's company came under fire. One member, "a Smith boy from California said, 'Mottern, I can't move my neck.'
   "I saw him lying about 15 or 20 yards off to the side. Part of his body was lying down the hill. So I laid my rifle down. As soon as I put that rifle down, they quit shooting. I have a lot of respect for the German people. They give you a fair chance," Mottern said.
   He went to check on Smith. "He had a hole in his neck. You could see down his throat. I told him I would be back to get him -- I didn't expect him to live very long. I picked up my rifle and the bullets started again. I think that's the difference in Japanese people and Vietnam people. They would have kept on shooting," Mottern said.
   The other 18 men in his company made it safely to the cathedral and secured the building. "We held them off until about 2 in the morning. After I got in there, I had to place one of the captains and to secure the crossroad" near the cathedral, Mottern said. "I took him to where the roads crossed and got him stationed. I looked down the road and saw what looked like about 12 or 15 men. I thought they were priests coming into the church.
   "I stuck my head around [the wall] and hollered, 'Halt.' When I did that, they pulled the Tommy machine guns out from behind their coats. They missed my face [by a hair]. The bullets ricocheted off of that rock wall. I could see them hitting. We took off running back toward the building.
   "The boy that was with me fell down and I was right behind him. As he was getting up, I had to step right in his back and mashed him back down. He had to lie out there all night. He missed all of the battle because he acted like he was dead."
   As Mottern entered the cathedral, the enemy threw a "potato masher," or concussion grenade. "It just explodes. There was no metal in it like in a hand grenade. It picked me up and threw me through the door and down a flight of 15 to 20 steps and I landed on my tail bone." Later, Mottern was told that his tail bone looked like a broken windshield, with cracks running in all directions.
   Darkness was approaching and it was Mottern's job to secure one end of the building. He was in an L-shaped hallway. "It was so dark I couldn't tell where I was. The end of the hallway was road-level with the window. I saw the flash of the bombs going off. I was just backed up against the wall, wide open.
   "I said, 'I'd better get over behind where I can get a little bit of security.' When the lights went down, I made my move."
   Just as he did, a German soldier shot a flare through the window. "It ricocheted two or three times off the wall. I landed spread-eagle" in the hallway, which was cluttered from fallen plaster and boards lying in every direction. "My gun went one way, and I prayed, 'Lord, still me.' I was trying to hold my breath, and I'm sure that I did, because he could see us breathing. That's when I feared for my life. I thought I was going to be killed. I was waiting for a bullet right in the middle of the head."
   But the German soldier thought Mottern was dead and didn't shoot him. The flare, made of phosphorous, landed on his hand, and there it lay until it burned out. "To this day, I can't feel anything," Mottern said.
   When the Germans couldn't get to the U.S. soldiers, they set fire to the building. "The captain outside said, 'You either come out or you get burned up.' The priest said, 'I've got 750 people [Frenchmen] in the basement and they're going to be burned up too. So our second lieutenant said, 'We'll surrender,'" Mottern recalled.
   They were told to leave all of their weapons inside the building. The priest led them out to the courtyard where they were lined up against a brick wall with the Germans pointing machine guns at them. "I had seen a movie back then where everybody that got shot, they lined them up against a wall. I thought, 'My time's a coming,'" Mottern said.
   The German officer questioned whether everyone was out and warned them: "If there's one shot fired from that building, we'll mow you down." Mottern said the U.S. soldiers were afraid that the fire would get to the ammunition left inside. "If it had, they'd have shot us all and they wouldn't have known the difference."
   One of the Germans jerked Mottern's dog tags off his neck and threw them in a pile. "They were looking for watches and rings. I hid my watch in the back of my boot. ... I hated myself for doing that because they marched us about 25 miles that same night, and that thing worked down and worked in under my foot, and they wouldn't let us stop," he said.
   Next: Swanay's capture