By Keith Gushard
It was a simple, spur-of-the-moment promise Staff Sgt. Harry McCracken made to his mother one Sunday morning in the spring of 1944, a promise Harry said never thought he’d fulfill — until he came face-to-face with his brother in a liberated prisoner of war camp near Moosberg, Germany.
“As far as I know, I’m the only World War II soldier who took his brother out of a POW camp in wartime,” McCracken said. It’s a story he will tell Thursday morning as part of the Through a Veteran’s Eye celebration at Active Aging, 1034 Park Ave.
McCracken and his mother were coming out of church in Westmoreland City that day when they received a telegram that Milton, Harry’s younger brother and the McCracken family’s youngest child, was a prisoner of war.
Harry said there was only one thing to say to his worried mother.
“I said, ‘Well, Mom, I’m getting ready to go overseas and I’ll find him,’” McCracken, now 91, said in a recent interview. Harry was with the U.S. Army’s 99th Infantry Division home on furlough when the family got the POW news about Milton.
Staff Sgt. Milton McCracken of the 15th U.S. Army Air Force, and the father of Meadville resident Lucy Nesbitt, was a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber when his plane was shot down May 10, 1944, while returning home on his 20th mission. Milton and five others of the crew were captured by the Germans while three other crew members were able to avoid capture and meet up with a partisan band under Marshal Josef Tito of Yugoslavia.
Harry figured his pledge may be one he wouldn’t be able to honor, but fate eventually stepped in.
“At that time, I had no idea I was going to Europe,” McCracken said. “All our training (in the U.S.) had been in the South with its hot weather. I thought we were going to the Pacific.”
Though Harry didn’t expect to find his brother, he prepared just in case.
“If I found him, I knew he would need a new set of clothes. I was a supply sergeant at the time (with the 99th Division), so I took set with me,” McCracken said with a smile.
Harry was set to Europe in September 1944, but not as a supply sergeant.
“I ended up as a combat medic — seeing action in the Battle of the Bulge (in December 1944) and others,” he said.
By the spring of 1945, the war in Europe was drawing to a close and Allied forces were pushing German forces closer and closer toward Berlin — U.S., British, Canadian and French forces from the West, and the then-Soviet Union from the East.
McCracken had received a list of Allied POW camps in Germany from his sister via the Red Cross with one near Nuremberg, Germany, were Harry was station.
“A buddy and I started riding around in a jeep trying to find it, but when we got there the camp was empty,” McCracken said. “We asked civilians what had happened, they said the prisoners had been taken out and marched south. We asked who they (the prisoners) were and they said Air Force people.”
However, the 99th Division was ordered to move out — heading north away from the area before eventually getting additional orders to change direction to the south.
While setting up a combat aid station near the town of Moosberg, McCracken overheard members of a tank crew from the 14th Armored Division talking about trying to find a POW camp believed to be in the area.
“I asked if they wanted a medic to go along and they said, ‘We don’t care,’” he said.
McCracken told his commanding officer, Maj. James Fyvie, a surgeon, so McCracken, Fyvie and another medic got into a jeep to follow the tank and two combat jeeps that were headed to what turned out to be Stalag VII A, an Allied POW camp.
Arriving at the camp, the German guards were nowhere to be found when the tank broke through the barbed-wire fence.
“They mobbed us,” McCracken said of the prisoners in the camp. “They were happy to see us.”
McCracken made his way the camp’s American officers’ quarters and asked the American officer in charge if there was a McCracken among the prisoners.
“He told me the name was familiar, but said, ‘You’ll never find anybody in the mob. If your brother’s here and you can come back tomorrow morning, I’ll have him here at this building,’” McCracken said.
“As I opened the door to walk down the steps, my brother’s standing there outside the building,” McCracken said, a bit misty-eyed. “You can imagine what kind of reunion it was. We both cried. I was pretty sure he had to be in that camp.”
McCracken and his major also schemed to get Milton out of the camp for the night.
“The major said to give my helmet with Red Cross on it and my combat jacket to my brother so they’ll think he’s a medic with us,” McCracken said.
McCracken took his younger brother back to the aid station where he was checked out by medics and physicians, stayed overnight, and then got a new uniform courtesy of his brother.
McCracken said he took his brother back to the camp the next day so he could be accounted for.
He also wrote his mother about the incident, but the first version letter didn’t clear U.S. Army censors.
“It was the best news, but I couldn’t tell my mother,” McCracken said.
That was until Maj. Fyvie signed off on a revised version — the major’s signature allowing it to be cleared by the censors.
To this day, McCracken (whose brother Milton has since passed) still is in awe he was able to fulfill the promise to his mother.
“Out of the thousands in the camp, what would be the odds of him standing there?” McCracken said. “It’s just amazing.”
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.