“Frank Remembers -“
My father was both an undertaker and a very religious Catholic. As a result, for both professional and religious reasons, he worked very hard to develop relationships with the local Catholic clergy and nuns.
In the early 40s, there was a newly established Catholic hospital in Norristown. My father worked very hard to support this hospital and befriend the Sacred Heart (order of) nuns who owned, administered and staffed the hospital. These nuns were all German immigrants and German was their first (and in some cases their only) language.
During World War II my father, because of his profession, had a big car and additional gas rations. For these reasons, he was often asked to ferry nuns to and from the hospital to their religious order’s U.S. Mother House in Readng, Pa. – about an hour northwest of our hometown – Norristown. During the summer, when most of these trips occurred, I often went along for the ride.
The so-called Mother House was the former summer mansion of a Pennsylvania industrialist and was on a hillside overlooking acres upon acres of beautiful farmland. During World War II, a large portion of that farmland was occupied by the US army Air Corp’s Reading Airfield and by what I was told was a prison of war camp housing German and Italian POWs. From the front porch of nun’s Mother House you could easily see the
camp and its chain link fence topped with barbed wire, its armed guard towers and the wooden barracks which housed the POWs. As a five or six-year-old boy, I was terrified of being even this close to the enemy.
One morning, probably in the late spring of 1945 (after the war with Germany had ended), my father asked me if I wanted to accompany him on one of his trips to the Reading Mother House. He hinted that this might be a rather special trip, so of course I agreed
Despite the teaser, the trip to Reading with two nuns presented nothing unusual until we approached the driveway leading to the Mother House. This time, we did not turn as usual. Instead we went straight ahead for another couple of miles until we reached the temporary road leading to the POW camp. To my shock we turned down the road leading to the camp. As we pulled up to the camp’s gate the one nun produced some documents which my father handed over to the MP at the gate. The MP inspected them and then made a phone call. Shortly thereafter, a jeep came up, the gate opened and the MPs in the jeep escorted our car into the POW camp. “WOW ” – I was actually inside a POW camp. We stopped at an administration building and all four of us were escorted into it. The MPs advised that we would have to stay with the nuns since they couldn’t allow my father and I to go roaming around on our own in a POW camp and quite frankly I sure didn’t want to do so.
Inside the clapboard building, we were all taken into a sparsely furnished room with one window, a table and four chairs and told to wait. I had no idea what was going on, but a few minutes later the door opened and two MPs escorted a rather young, blond-haired man into the room. He was dressed in baggy denim trousers and a denim shirt on the back of which was stenciled in big letters “P.O.W.” I was looking face to face at what I assumed was a POW. The MPs shut the door but stayed in the room at parade rest with one hand on their holstered pistols. One of the nuns stepped forward and embraced the POW with tears streaming down her face. My father quietly explained to me that the POW and the num were sister and brother. They had not seen each other since before the war and that the brother was a German soldier who had been captured by the Americans in France.
The brother and sister sat at the table and conversed in German for about 15 minutes while we looked on not understanding what was being said. When the allotted time was up, one MP singled that the visit was over. The POW stood and walked over to my father, snapped to attention, saluted, and in broken English while shaking my father’s hand thanked him for helping to make the visit possible. He then bent over and patted me on the head and gave me a big smile as he turned to leave. Another tearful embrace between the nun and her brother brought our face to face meeting with a German POW to a close. But, boy did I have a story to tell the kids when I got home.
PS – Dear Readers,
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Pat & Frank Fleming