How Three World War II POWs Saved Each Other’s Lives

Barbara Falconer Newhall and Bob Tharratt, one of the surviving World War II POWs. Barbara Newhall photo.

I had a lovely reunion with Bob Tharratt, one of three World War II POWs who helped each other survive a forced march across Germany. His story appears in my book. Barbara Newhall photo.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I’m so sad to have to tell you that, only a few days after our reunion in Walnut Creek, Bob Tharratt passed away. It’s wonderful that his warmth and kindness was still with him until the very end of his life. It was my privilege to know him.

When Bob Tharratt returned from the war — World War II — his father told him to “write it down.” Bob didn’t. He couldn’t. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was experiencing what would be described today as post traumatic stress disorder — PTSD.

Bob had been a POW and had survived a brutal forced march across Germany. He couldn’t talk about his experience, let alone write it down.

Years later, though, thanks to a program at the Concord Vet Center in San Francisco’s East Bay, Bob was finally able to share his story with other veterans. Eventually, he could let go of his pent-up fear and anger and share his story with family and friends — including eventually several German friends.

In the 1990s, Bob generously shared with me the story of his capture by a band of Hitler Youth, his imprisonment in Eastern Europe, and a deadly march across Germany with other World War II POWs during one of the coldest winters on record. Bob’s story became one of the most compelling spiritual journeys in my book, “Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith.”

Here’s an excerpt from Bob’s chapter. It  describes the friendship of three World War II POWs, a friendship that Bob believes saved all three lives:

Three World War II POWs

Sometimes one of us would give up and sit down by the edge of the road. When one of us, Art, Lou, or I, became despondent and ready to give up, the other two would take over. We’d grab the fella’s pack and throw it over one shoulder, get him in between us, and sort of carry him along. Then somewhere down the line, another one would give up.

Art and Lou tell me — I don’t remember this — that at one point I lay down on the ground in the snow and the mud.

“I can’t go any farther,” I said. “I’m tired. I’m cold. My feet hurt. I can’t move.”

“Come on, Bob. Let’s go.”

“No. Let me alone. Let me die right here.”

So Art and Lou grabbed my pack and walked away. Now, your pack was all you had. It had everything you owned in it, dry socks, food, canteen. You couldn’t make it without your pack.

“You sonsabitches,” I yelled after them. “Goddamn you. Come back here. Give me my pack.”

But they wouldn’t come back. I had to get up off the ground and go staggering after them. That how they did it, that’s how they kept me going. They knew I wouldn’t stay there without my pack. Art and Lou were my saviors. If they had left me behind, no telling what would have happened to me. A lot of guys didn’t make it because they didn’t have help from someone else. And Art and Lou and I — if it hadn’t been for each other, we wouldn’t have made it.

Bob and I spent hours and hours back in the 1990s talking and taping his story. He was a stickler for detail and accuracy, pulling 50-year-old events and conversations from his lively memory. When I visited a 96-year-old Bob the other day to read from my book to residents at his assisted living facility, however, time had taken its toll. His memory had finally slowed. He struggled to recall the details of the remarkable life that I — we — had so exactingly recorded for posterity.

“I never thought I would ever forget any of the things I did, but I have,” he said. Still, when he read his chapter in my book the memories came flooding back.

Which Explains Why I Wrote That Book

And there you have it. That’s why I wrote this book. That’s what drove me to spend hours — years — interviewing people of diverse traditions and backgrounds and working over the transcriptions until I had shaped them into compelling stories. I wanted to get those stories down on paper, to preserve them. I wanted to show these ordinary — amazing — people to the world.

More about my book at “Kudos for ‘Wrestling with God’ — The Author Shamelessly Keeps Score.”   More religion and spirituality stuff at “God’s Sin — Or Ours?”

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