By Larry E. Hudec
414 Westchester Ct.
Murfreesboro, TN 37129
The funeral was scheduled for Monday morning at Arlington National Cemetery. It was Saturday morning. I was home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee where I had moved six years ago, following an unusual set of circumstances. I had, of course, a list of things to do. How could I possibly have time to go to the grocery store? It would have to wait until I got back. Fortunately, one of my tasks took less time than anticipated. With an hour to spare, I started my blue pick-up truck and headed to Kroger’s.
I hurriedly parked and jumped out. Crossing the parking lot I noticed a man and woman flanking the entrance. They were selling something. Oh, nuts, I thought, more cookies to buy. As I approached the door, a nice elderly lady asked, “Would you like to purchase a daisy in honor of the ex-POWs? The daisy symbolized ‘don’t tell’ and a POW keeps his country’s secrets.” “Sure,” I said digging into my wallet for a small donation. I thought how could I not? My uncle was a former prisoner of war and it was his funeral I’d be attending. She handed me the daisy and said, “Wear it proudly”. “Thanks”, I said. Not taking the time to find a place for it, I stuffed it in my pocket.
Maneuvering through the aisles, I thought I should tell that nice lady my uncle had been a prisoner of war. I had a couple of extra minutes. However, I forgot and after completing my purchase I made my way towards my truck. Almost there, I remembered the lunchmeat. Had to go back. Making my way to the entrance, I saw the man and woman again. Wanting to save a buck, I quickly jerked out the daisy and showed it to the lady. “I already made a donation”, I said. “Yes”, she said. “I remember your smiling face.” Entering the store, I realized once again I forgot to tell her about my uncle. “For sure on the way out.” I said to myself. This time I didn’t forget.
Upon exiting the store, I went straight to the elderly couple. “Hi, my name is Larry. My uncle had been a prisoners of war,” I said to the lady. “My name is Betty Clark,” she said. “My husband is Bill Clark. Bill was also a prisoner of war. He was held captive by the German government and was liberated by Russian soldiers in 1945.” I explained to her “My uncle had recently died and was to be buried on Monday at Arlington National Cemetery. I prepared the information for his obituary and remembered that he, too, was captured by the Germans and liberated by the Russians in 1945.” Excitedly, she called to her husband. “Bill” she said, “This man’s uncle was also held captive by the Germans and liberated by the Russians in 1945. He died, though, and will be interred Monday at Arlington National Cemetery.” Bill immediately called me over and said “I was liberated on January 31, 1945.” I told him my uncle was also liberated that same day.
“I was in Camp 3C,” Bill said. ”What camp was your uncle in?” I told him I recalled reading that information in an old newspaper clipping I keep in a scrapbook, but couldn’t think of it right then. He said, “I’d be interested in knowing that. I was the ranking noncommissioned officer in the camp, and as such, was the chief negotiator between the Germans and the prisoners. (You could say he was the Hogan of Hogan’s Heroes.) When the Russians liberated us, we were still at war. There were about 400 of us. We divided into small groups and had to make our way to freedom. I led a group of 40 men to freedom, but sadly, many of the others were later recaptured.”
I told the Clarks that I’d review the newspaper clipping and send them a letter telling them what camp my uncle was in. Betty gave me their address. I left assuring them I’d send them the information. Approaching my truck, I thought, I only live five minutes away; why not just go back, look up the information and immediately return. Back I went to see how long they’d be there. Bill said, “We’ll be here a couple more hours. I really hope you can make it back today.”
Leafing through the scrapbook, I finally found the dated article. Sure enough, my uncle was held in the same camp. Immediately, I called my dad in California and explained what happened. I asked him, “Did Uncle Mike ever talk about being a prisoner of war, and what happened after being liberated by the Russians?” “No,” he said, “Mike never talked about that.” My dad was quite excited, but he couldn’t offer anything to help.
I made a copy of the newspaper article and an old Army document confirming Uncle Mike’s liberation date from the Germans to give to Bill and Betty. Back to Kroger’s.
There they sat as I eagerly approached them. “Yes”, I called to them, “he was in Camp 3C!” I showed them the articles. They were both, as I was, utterly astonished.
Bill began to speak a little slower. “Now,” he said, “if I could only figure out if your uncle was one of my group of forty. I would really like to know.” I told him that I had talked to my dad and he couldn’t offer any clues on that. All of their other siblings are also gone, and there is nobody left to ask. Bill went on to say, “I led the men from Germany through Poland, Ukraine, Egypt, and Italy to the United States. I once had a list of all the men’s names, but gave it to the captain of the ship. See, the Russians detained us for two weeks. I was afraid something was wrong. So I gave the list to the captain and asked him to give it to the American authorities if anything happened to us. I then told the Russians what I had done. The next day, the Russians told us we were free to go.”
“Bill”, I said, “I don’t know how my uncle had returned to the United States. Actually, I thought the war was over because my uncle had traveled through Europe. Look at the article. It says right here that after being liberated he traveled from Germany, through Poland, Ukraine, Egypt and Italy to the good old USA”.
We then both realized what had happened and stopped speaking. Then the old soldier looked at me, and with a soft voice quietly said, “That is the exact route we took. Your uncle was with my group of forty men.”
After retiring from the military, my Uncle Mike went on to lead a long and healthy life. Our family is sincerely grateful to Bill Clark for his outstanding leadership and heroic actions. And, yes, Bill now remembers my Uncle Mike. You see my uncle was 35 years old at the time (much older than the other men) and was balding. He had to wear a wool stocking cap to keep his head warm. This Bill remembers well! Also, my uncle was a medic, and Bill remembers the valuable medical attention he provided to the group. As for the daisy, well I gave it to my father at the hotel. Before leaving for the funeral, he pinned it to his lapel.
On June 4, 2001, Michael P. Hudec, at the age of 90, was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. At 10:20 AM the bugler played TAPS. May he rest in peace.
Note; Bill Clark would like to get in touch with any of the men who were held in Camp 3C, Kustrin, Germany. His address is: 2778 Rideout Lane, Apt. N-1414, Murfreesboro, TN 37128.