Memorial Day ceremony appreciates MIA, POWs
Tuesday , May 29, 2012 - 7:23 AM
OGDEN -- One listener at Monday morning's annual POW/MIA Awareness Memorial Day ceremony had more reason than most to appreciate the twin sentiments of "don't forget them" and "never leave a man behind."
The ceremony, part of Memorial Day activities at Leavitt's Aultorest Cemetery, was held to remind people that not all of America's war dead have come home.
Prisoners of war and those missing in action tend to get neglected, said Kurt Falkner, executive director of the POW/MIA Awareness Organization of Utah.
"Our organization is about a keeping the promise, fulfilling the trust that nobody is left behind," he said.
Austin Barney, 88, was simultaneously missing in action and a prisoner of war during World War II. While he wasn't forgotten, for three months, nobody back home knew if he was dead or alive.
Barney attended Memorial Day observances put on by a combination of veterans and fraternal organizations Monday.
The day began with an annual sunrise ceremony at the grave of Cpl. Fred J. Grant, a casualty of World War I for whom Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1481 is named.
A dozen members of the post gathered in the early morning gloom to review Grant's battle history, hearing how he was killed on Nov. 10, 1918, the last day of the first world war.
"There has been no other nation on Earth whose sacrifices have been greater than ours," said Post Commander Doug Larson, reading from the VFW's annual Memorial Day statement.
Later, members of the same VFW post held a fallen soldier memorial in front of the chapel at the cemetery.
The ceremony replicates the battlefield memorial that troops hold when a soldier is killed, including putting his or her rifle in the ground, barrel first on a bayonet, and boots beside it, a helmet on top to form a crude cross.
During the ceremony, State VFW Commander Dennis Howland said nobody really appreciates what Memorial Day means "until you go off to war and lose somebody beside you, knowing they're not coming home."
Howland, who lost several close friends in Vietnam, said that realization makes Memorial Day an opportunity to recall the memories of those lost friends.
"Enjoy the day, and stop and thank the people we honor, so we can enjoy the day," he said.
Barney, sitting in the sun with his son, John, beside him, said he was glad to be able to enjoy the day, and knew he was lucky to be able to do so.
Barney, who grew up in Ferron, Utah, was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, just before Christmas 1944.
He was only 19.
Thousands died as a furious German assault rolled over American troops, but Barney survived and even came to sympathize with his German captors.
In December 1944, he was a member of the 106th Infantry Division, stationed along what was thought to be a quiet front of the war in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium near the German border.
It was through their section on Dec. 16 that the German Army launched its last great offensive on the European front, what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Two battalions of the 106th, including Barney's, were cut off by a German pincers operation and captured on Dec. 19.
"We went down in this little valley, all grass and green, no snow, and there we had a battle," Barney remembered. "Pretty soon, our officers throw in the white flag and we were taken prisoner.
"They took us up on a hill. It was muddy and mucky, and we sat there all night. There were four of us, and we sat on our helmets and put our backs together, and that's the way we spent the night."
They were marched 30 miles to a railroad station, loaded into boxcars and hauled for four days, with no food or water.
"There were about 300 of us in a boxcar," Barney said.
On the fourth day, Christmas Day, "it was about 8 or 9 at night, they opened the boxcar door and threw in some cans of Spam or some kind of canned meat, and a little bread."
That was Christmas dinner.
They were taken to the German POW camp Stalag 9B, near Bad Orb, where Barney said they spent three months, living on a bowl of soup and a slice of bread a day.
The Germans were "civil and considerate" to the Americans prisoners, he said.
The Germans also had little more to eat than the prisoners they guarded, he said.
"They didn't have zilch. They were desperate."
There was little to do but walk around the camp and pick bugs off each other, Barney said. They slept two to a bunk, three bunks high.
"I was lucky to get the top bunk because guys below would complain you were shaking the bed and knocking bugs down on them."
He and others who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints saved bits of their bread ration for Sunday service. Just being alive, he figured, "was more of a blessing. I do know I got to know Heavenly Father better."
Liberation, he said, came April 1, when Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army freed them.
"We could hear the firing of Patton's Army cannon, and we knew it for three or four days, or a week," he said.
Then they could hear the engines of Patton's tanks. Their German guards lined them up, took roll and turned them over to the Americans.
"That was a great day when we were liberated," Barney said.
He came home, got married and got on with life.
Falkner said 83,000 Americans are still missing from all of America's wars.