Although my father’s story of his time as a prisoner of war in WWII is a very tragic one filled with brutality and man’s inhumanity to man, it does have a fairytale ending of sorts.
When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, of the 300,000 prisoners they had taken, 200,000 survived—barely. Like my father most of them were severely malnourished and diseased. Almost all of them weighed under 100 pounds. The prisoners lost an average of 25 pound a year. Most were prisoners for 3.5 years, meaning they lost 75-90 pounds. My father joined the Army weighing 160 pounds, and he weighed 90 pounds when he was liberated. All of these POWs were seriously ill with malaria, dengue fever, beri beri, and dysentery. Along with 200,000 other soldiers my father spent the next three months in a variety of hospitals being nursed back to his normal weight. It took almost three months. In October 1945 my dad was in Schick General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa, getting very close to being released to go home. There he met Alpheus Brown, who was in the bed next to him. They were both from the Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota. Al showed my father a picture of his sister Hazel. She was a beautiful young thing! My dad declared, “I am going to marry her.” Al was outraged and responded, “Over my dead body!” Uncle Al later told my husband and me that he thought my dad was some kind of a weirdo! He was so friendly and talkative, Al thought something was wrong with him. But true to form—my father was a very determined man—Ken went home, met Hazel, and less than three months later they were married. The plot thickens.
Mom’s sister Harriet had also begun dating another ex-POW and long-time family friend Carl Kramp when he returned home in October 1945. Mom and Harriet had a best friend named Arlene Leibold. They did not want Al to be left out of the fun, so in late December they called Arlene and asked her if she would like to go out with them. Ken and Hazel, Carl and Harriet, and Al and Arlene went out on a Friday in late December. I don’t know what happened Saturday, but on Sunday Al and Arlene were engaged too. On February 20, 1946, the three couples were married in a triple wedding at my grandparent’s home in Nisswa, Minnesota. The brides all in identical gowns, the guys all in U.S. Army uniforms covered in medals, all three couples married after dating each other less than three months.
Young people who hear this story are aghast. How could these couples possibly do such a thing? They barely knew each other! And what bride would want to share their wedding day with two other couples, let alone wear the exact same dress? And the venue? A living room? As kids would say today, “Shut up!”
Yet these three marriages stood the test of time. Al and Arlene were married 30 years when Al died of a heart attack in 1976. Carl and Harriet were married over 60 years when both of them died in their eighties. And my mom and dad were married 60 years and two months when my father died in 2006. These marriages worked. These men came home after sacrificing some of the best years of their lives serving their country and settled down to do the same for their wives and families. The same work ethic, dedication, and faithfulness that got them enlisted and deployed, and helped them survive unspeakable brutality now went to work to build their homes, families, and this great country we now live in. These Greatest Generation men and women knew what commitment was. When they said “until death do us part,” they meant it.
The sorrow and suffering of their stories was in large part redeemed by this happy ending of three marriages that stood the test of time. All three men almost gave their lives in service to their country. When they survived they did give their lives in service to their families. They remained faithful to each other “till death did them part.”