Carter County POWs reunited on the road to prison camp

Fourth in a series

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   It was early April 1945 and Gen. George Patton's army was on the move. All of the young, able-bodied German soldiers were called into action, leaving the old and infirm to guard tens of thousands of starving Allied soldiers in prisoner-of-war camps scattered throughout the country.
   As Patton got close to Nuremberg, Wright Swanay of Elizabethton, a member of the 15th Air Force, and other Luft Waffe POWs (airmen) were given their "marching orders." They left Stalag Luft-3 on foot, headed to Stalag 7-A in Moosburg.
   At the same time, Sonny Mottern, a friend of Swanay's from Elizabethton, was on the road to Moosburg from a different POW camp in Nuremberg. "All of us were being moved -- 10,000 -- to Moosburg, marching," Mottern said.
   "Well, we weren't actually marching, we were just struggling, trying to get there. My feet were so swollen I couldn't put my shoes on. When we stopped at night, we slept in the ditch beside the road."
   According to Swanay, "It was 95 miles and took us 17 days. We had to steal food because they didn't give us any."
   Swanay, at least, had a bowl and spoon because he was captured six or months before Mottern. "When he got captured, it was the worst time. It was right after the Battle of the Bulge," Swanay said, when food and supplies were few.
   But growing up in the hills of Tennessee and learning to "make do" paid off for Mottern. "I found me an old rusty can and I cleaned it up. The rust had eat the bottom out of it, and there was just barely a pinhole. I was losing my soup.
   "I had a filling in my tooth that was loose and I worked that filling out and laid it over that pinhole and built me a little fire and heated that thing and soldered that hole. That soup was precious stuff," he said.
   In the POW camps, it was known as grass soup. "It was made of rotten cabbage and potatoes. Sometimes you would see a piece of meat floating in there where they'd killed a horse. Everybody had a job. They made cooks out of some and the cooks would tell us, 'You're having horse meat tonight!'"
   Mottern eventually lost all his teeth to malnutrition.
   One day during the march to Moosburg, he was sitting on the side of the road, getting ready to eat some potatoes he had stolen.
   "I had gone as far as I could," he said. "I saw these soldiers come walking up the road." One of them was Swanay.
   "I think we saw each other about the same time. Wright told me later that I was the prettiest thing he'd ever seen!" Mottern said, laughing.
   Swanay had been in and out of various POW camps for the last 10 months and hadn't seen anyone from home. "Seemed like everybody in my camp, they had a buddy from home. They'd get together and talk about news from home and different things. And I thought, 'Am I the only one from Carter County to get captured?'"
   Swanay's group stopped to take a break. "Our guards were old men by then. All of the young men had been taken. They barely could make it too. They had to rest off and so did we. There wasn't much discipline in the march then. You just straggled," he said.
   Mottern and Swanay ran to each other and shook hands. "We both said, 'What in the h... are you doing here?' We were excited to see each other," Swanay said. "We'd been friends. I knew his brothers and he knew mine. Our daddies had worked together.
   "We got caught up: 'How did you get here? How long have you been here? Have you seen anybody else from home?'" Mottern hadn't seen anyone else either.
   "We had a good reunion. It kind of united us and gave us a bond. We've been real close ever since," Swanay said.
   "Sonny had those potatoes and we built a little fire and put those potatoes in there and roasted them and ate them. We got to stay there an hour or two, and then my group moved on. I didn't know if I would ever see Sonny again because he was in pretty bad shape."
   After they arrived at the POW camp in Moosburg, they didn't see each other again. They were just two POWs lost in a sea of faces.
   "I hated to see Wright leave," Mottern said. "But he was with his Air Force people." Mottern was in the 15th Infantry, 3rd Division, and Air Force and Infantry soldiers were kept separate.
   "They moved out and I was still there," Mottern said.
   Swanay looked back and saw Mottern sitting there beside the road. "He'd lost a lot of weight. He looked pretty pitiful. I was too weak to help him. I said, 'I'd help you, but I can't.'"
   At one point, there were 20 men, either sick or lame, in Mottern's group. Both they and the Germans knew that the war was winding down. "We felt pretty safe. We were stealing potatoes out of the basements and out of the houses," Mottern said.
   Sometimes they would go right up to the homes of the Germans, and even though the residents had little food, they often would give them half of what they had.
   "Me and my buddy, while we were still on the road, we stopped at a house along the way and saw some people coming out of it. I said, 'There's no use stopping there. Soldiers have already been in that house.' But we went anyway," Mottern said.
   "There was two old maids in there and they had a pone of bread. They cut it in two and gave us half of it. And then I stole the knife that they cut it with. I still have guilt for that. I told my wife that if I knew where they were at -- of course they're dead now -- I'd buy them the best set of silverware made."
   Another time, a German lady gave them an egg apiece and even fried it for them.
   One day on the march, Mottern saw an old barn way off in the field. "Of course, I was from the country, and I just thought to myself: 'Where there's a barn, it has to have some hay in it. And where there's hay, there has to be a chicken in it.'" He thought he might find a chicken on a nest, so he took off across the field. "The old Germans, they weren't able to keep up. They didn't try to stop me," he said.
   At the barn, he found a ladder. He climbed it and looked over in the corner. Sure enough, there was a pile of hay and in the midst of the hay, a hen.
   Tears came into his eyes as he recounted the story.
   "I knew that she was a laying hen and not a setting hen. The difference in the laying hen and the setting hen, an old laying hen will spread out and cover her eggs to hatch them. The other one's up, alert," he said.
   He got up close to the bird. "I had to make a decision: I wanted that chicken. I could see those legs cooking over a fire. I stood there and when the old hen raised up and laid the egg, I made a dive for her." The chicken went through his arms and he ended up with the egg.
   "When we were going to high school and playing football, they would tell you to suck eggs and it would give you strength," Mottern said.
   He sucked the egg from the chicken. "That was my meal for the day."
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