By Carl Burkhart
George was thirty-seven years old when he went to prison.
But that was okay…it meant that he was probably coming home. The prison’s name was Stalag 12B.A few months before his incarceration, although I was only four years oldI remember looking out of the bay window of our second-floor apartment as George—“Pop” to me— walked down the street in his uniform—he was off to war. Mom was with me, softly crying, her cheek next to mine.The strange part of the situation was the fact that Pop had been serving in uniform when he was drafted. He was a member of the Coast Guard’s Volunteer Port Security Force, doing dockside patrol duty a couple of nights a week after work wearing the uniform of a bos’ns mate. In spite of that, he was still eligible for the draft!As I grew up, watching my kind, humble Pop grow old I often tried to picture him on his belly crawling across France with an M1 rifle cradled in his arms. Not possible.
Yet it happened.I tried to picture him aiming his rifle at another human being and pulling the trigger. Absolutely impossible! Not this man who sang tenor every Sunday in the choir, who jumped up from the table to get you more ice for your drink, who was a clerk for an insurance company. Yet it happened.
Watching the movie “Stalag 17” the other night, I tried to picture Pop in that barrack. Not easy.Yet it happened.
I have a V-mail letter Pop had written home while in a field hospital shortly after his liberation from the Stalag. He had adopted a little family of body lice in the Stalag, hence the hospitalization for delousing as well as nourishment and other treatment.
He was well into his eighties before I got him to speak of his service in the Army of the United States. I have discovered that this is common in those who have experienced battle face-to-face. He still didn’t say much. He told me that after he was drafted they pulled a bunch of his back teeth that were in bad shape. “There are no dentists where you’re going…,” they told him. Kindly, the army had fitted him with false teeth—which he wore for the remaining fifty years of his life.
Pop didn’t say much about the Stalag. He spoke a little German with the guards, who apparently didn’t want to be there either. Being of German descent, I imagine he felt a certain affinity for his captors. I can’t imagine him hating another human being.
He had been wounded—a nick in the arm and another in the ear. I have imagined with horror the possibility of the trajectory of those bullets going a few inches to the right or to the left. My brother, born ten years after the War, may have had similar thoughts.
War. They took an insurance clerk, yanked his teeth out, gave him an M-1, and told him to go shoot at his ethnic brothers. Pop got his ticket to the Stalag by surrendering…under what circumstances, I don’t know. But I’m glad he surrendered. He’s a hero to me.
A Soldiers Thoughts in Letters to a Friend
I came across a letter written by my father, George Burkhart, as he was treated in a field hospital in January 1945. He had been wounded as an infantry soldier in France, and later went back into action. I find it interesting to read the thoughts of a soldier whose future was definitely uncertain.
In mid-February (Ash Wednesday) he was captured (previous story I submitted), and was liberated in early April (Holy Thursday). A second letter, in V-mail form, contains his thoughts immediately following his liberation.
Below are transcripts of letters written by PFC George H. Burkhart USA while in combat in the European Theater of War, World War II. The letters are addressed to good friends Al & Catherine Shields.
– By Carl Burkhart
Tues. Jan 23 
Dear ‘Al’ and Catherine:
Greetings again from this humble person who is glad to be alive & able to walk after 2 months of combat experience. At the present time I am confined to a hospital in the rear, recuperating from a very slight graze job on my upper left arm. Am in no pain.
I can’t go into detail yet, but when I do you can get the dope from Dot [spouse] if I don’t get a chance to again write you. I have already received the Purple Heart which needs to be wrapped up and mailed home. I am in good health, good appetite, and good spirits (who wouldn’t be that can once again sleep in pajamas and not be awakened for foxhole guard duty?). I eat wherever and whenever I can in the last 2 months & is no doubt caused by the outdoor acclamation [sic] we soldiers get. Meals here are at 6-11-4 and are very good. So with radio going all day (with good news from Uncle Joe), plenty to read and write with, I can’t ask for a better rest period.
Our last month here has been rough, and although we have had few arguments, when you defend a town taken & have plenty of outposting to do & get plenty of ‘incoming mail’ [artillery attacks] you always have, as Frederick March did 2 years ago, one foot in heaven.
Yes, I am going through something that I hope you would never have to reach. I can’t put in writing, nor would I ever want to bore you with the details following that Sour Kraut dinner I am looking forward to. But will dwell on the scenery & answer any questions that I think should be answered. You don’t want to remember lots of things. You are quite right about a guiding hand, I can vouch for that. So with getting bumped exactly nine months to the day since I left for Cumberland & spending the last 2 months in combat area, don’t you agree I know what a pregnant woman goes through?
I have corresponded with Frank Weaver & he with me, but we have not shaken hands yet. I am sure we are in the same sector & may be only 5 miles apart, but I can’t take time off & look him up. I would if I was an adjuster [for an insurance company] but need I tell you I ain’t a civilian. The APO of this hospital is the same APO as Shorty but by the time I write him I will be removed. Then you never know what is scratched out [by the censor].
So I’ll close for the time being & hope & pray you & yours are spared this induction & that you will all be one happy family. Many thanks again for your kind words, I appreciate them immensely. Write when you can, it will always be answered.
George Burkhart was released and returned to combat duty.
He was captured on February 14, 1945 and the following postcard was sent to his wife:
The camp was in Limburg, Germany. He was eventually liberated by U.S. troops and hospitalized. He wrote the following V-mail to his friends:
April 8, 1945
Dear Al & Katherine:
Greetings once more to my good & faithful friends whom I have often thought of but could not communicate with since Feb. 14. The fortunes of war made me a captured prisoner early Ash Wednesday & going through the channels, I entered into & was locked in a Penitentiary for the first time on your daughter’s birthday.
Since then I have lived on hard brown Heinie bread, soup, & strength & sustinence [sic] from above. If I choose, I will have many a tale to tell when I get back. Suffice, the speed of our armored units caught up with our retreating captives [sic] & we were liberated on Holy Thursday. Easter at 4AM we finally got rid of all those lice, a pair of pajamas & a hospital bed. Man, what a different feeling. My #1 vote now as the scourge of mankind is: lice.
Al, I hope you never get inducted. You probably can’t get in the Navy & would get in the infantry for sure. In my opinion, this war is far from over [V-E Day was a month away] & I laugh when I read of V-E plans in the States. Every [German] man 14 to 60 years is in a uniform. There are no 4-Fs over here, although some soldiers are Sad Sacks. We will have to fight all the way, believe me.
In the meantime, I can smell that Sour Kraut & it may only be a matter of weeks. Best of wishes & luck to a swell couple.