My late father-in-law Orville “Bud” Rathbun served in the United States Army during World War II and was held prisoner by the Germans.
Like many veterans, Bud didn’t like to discuss his wartime experiences though my husband Phil often asked him questions about it. Bud would just say the war was bad and then he’d quickly change the subject.
Bud’s wife Irene saved all of his Army documents, personal letters and other mementoes from the war. After Phil inherited the items, we learned more about Bud’s Army experience.
He was drafted when he was 27. At the time, he’d been married to Irene for three years, had no children yet, and worked as a cheese maker in Gridley, Illinois.
Bud began active service on September 10, 1943, and was trained as a rifleman at Camp Van Dorn in Mississippi for six months. After training, he was deployed to serve in the European Theater with the 331st Infantry, 83rd Division and 16th Infantry, 1st Division. He fought in the battles of Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland and Ardennes.
During the Battle of Normandy on July 12, 1944, he was badly wounded in the shoulder. He was sent to England to recover in a hospital and was awarded a Purple Heart for his injury.
Following recovery, Bud returned to combat in Belgium during the Battle of Ardennes, which is better known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was the bloodiest battle of the war and lasted from December 1944 to January 1945.
An official Army report of the battle lists 108,347 casualties, including 19,246 killed, 62,489 wounded and 26,612 captured and missing.
On January 17, 1945, Bud became one of the captured and missing. German forces took him prisoner and transported him by train to a POW camp in Germany.
POWs lived under harsh conditions, according to their stories on the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project website. One POW summed up his imprisonment by saying that they “lived like animals.”
The Germans allowed them two meals a day consisting of a cup of watery potato soup and a small slice of bread. One or two POWs succumbed to starvation each day. Fortunately, their diet was supplemented with occasional food parcels from the Red Cross or more would have died.
The parcels contained coffee, powdered milk, chocolate bars, jam, raisins, cigarettes, and other items. Often, several POWs had to share one parcel.
POWs couldn’t bathe or shave and had to wear the same clothing that they’d been captured in every day. Due to poor hygiene and diet, plus squalid conditions, they developed illnesses such as dysentery and malnutrition. They also dealt with constant hunger, bug infestations on their bodies, freezing cold weather and frequent combat noise.
During his three-month imprisonment, Bud became comrades with a Russian POW. POWs were housed in different compounds by nationality, but were able to converse through wire
Bud gave his friend his share of cigarettes from parcels because he didn’t smoke. In return, the friend, who was an artisan, gave Bud a small metal box that he’d crafted. The box is remarkable because it’s made from the metal of a shot down airplane and elaborately etched with forest scenes and geometrical designs.
Bud scratched his name on the bottom of the box and kept it as a memento of his special friendship. It’s ironic to me that a beautiful piece of artwork was created from an ugly war machine.
On April 13, 1945, Bud was freed. The war in Europe ended a few weeks later and he returned to America on May 15. He was promoted from private first class to corporal and spent the rest of his service time as a military policeman patrolling the Pentagon in Washington D.C.
The war in the Pacific ended in September 1945 and two months later Bud was honorably discharged the day before Veterans Day. He returned to Gridley and used his Army experience to apply for jobs better than making cheese.
In 1954, he was appointed as postmaster of Gridley by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He worked at this job until retiring in 1980.
In 2003, Bud passed away at 87. He had a military funeral with a 21-gun salute. I took the flag that draped his coffin and put it in a shadow box with his Army photo and war metals.
This tribute to him reminds me on Memorial Day, and other days, of the sacrifices that he and fellow soldiers made to protect America. I’m proud to be related to such a hero.