World War II veteran, former POW, takes freedom as it comes

TEMPLE TERRACE

In the house he bought with his wife, in the place where they raised their children, Donald Britt wakes up alone, makes himself breakfast and sits until he feels sleepy. His wife is in a nursing home. His grown kids count his pills and don't let him drive. He knows it's because they worry about him. But sometimes, he feels trapped. Britt is 87, and so is his heart.

Earlier this year, nurses and chaplains from LifePath Hospice began to visit. They brought oxygen tanks and company, and, one recent afternoon, a token for his military service — a pin, attached to a card of thanks.

They gathered around, as his two sons watched, and asked him for stories of the Army and World War II.

For three-and-a-half hours, he obliged.

"I was a prisoner of war," he said, "for 100 days."

• • •

In December 1944, in an offensive now known as the Battle of the Bulge, his 422nd Infantry Regiment was cut off from air support and tanks, and empty on ammunition. Many were dead by the time of surrender to the Germans. Britt had seven dog tags in his pocket.

The soldiers were herded into a train, standing-room only. They took turns lying down, while others straddled their bodies. They propped each other up, to sleep on their feet.

The train was stopped at a railroad complex, after a couple of days' travel, when the prisoners heard the drone of approaching planes, American. The prisoners knew their train was not marked.

The bombs began to fall.

The guards ran for cover.

"All hell broke loose," Britt said. And the prisoners were stuck. Some tried to break vents with their bare hands, but instead bloodied their fists.

Then, something happened, Britt said. A soldier pulled out a Bible and began to read the 23rd Psalm: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want . . .

"It seemed like suddenly, in the car, it was quiet and peaceful," Britt said. "And everybody was listening." In other train cars, dozens of prisoners died. But Britt's was spared.

The next night was Christmas Eve. The train had moved along and then stopped again. The soldiers were thirsty, and someone heard what sounded like running water. Someone else heard the same. Before long, they were all listening; they could actually smell it. They asked a guard for a drink, but were denied.

One prisoner suggested maybe the guards would be moved by Christmas carols. "We tried to sing them as good as we could," Britt said.

They drew a crowd.

Ultimately, a guard told the prisoners to pass out anything that could hold water. Britt took a drink out of a sweaty helmet liner. "Best water you ever had."

Britt's story continues in Stalag IXB, a camp for prisoners of war where he was made to drop his pants so that the Germans could see if he was Jewish. Food was so limited, he lost 80 pounds. One night, he could do nothing but listen to the screams of a young corporal who had tried to escape.

Britt earned a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a collection of other medals.

For years, he did not tell the worst of his stories. "I was so P.O.'d that I didn't want to talk about nothing," he said. "So it stayed pretty much buried."

He tells them a lot now and self-published two books for his family. "It's like I'm free and I need to share what happened so people who weren't there would have some idea what kind of hell could come out of war."

• • •

A week after his hospice visitors left, Britt did not remember the pin they gave him. But he remembered that they listened. He hoped he helped them appreciate their freedom.

These days, he finds his freedom where he can, like on his stationary bicycle. "I force my poor little heart to generate a few more bumps a minute," he said. "That's when I feel the best all day, even though I'm not going anywhere."

Sometimes, despite the rules of his kids, he escapes routine. "I sneak out," he said. "When they hear about it, they dress me down and all that bull. I've got to go some place once in a while when I want to go."

He goes to the Hillsborough River and watches the fish jump.

And he goes to the grocery store. He lives on cheese. "I might have gotten that from being a prisoner of war," he said.

The Germans fed him cheese made of milk and sawdust.

"I like American," he said.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

How to help

LifePath Hospice and the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital will host a free event to teach the public, especially caregivers, about the physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs of returning vets.

When: Wednesday

at 8:30 a.m.

Where: Embassy Suites, 3705 Spectrum Blvd., on the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida. For more info: Email Guy Glass at GlassG@chaptershealth.org.

World War II veteran, former POW, takes freedom as it comes 11/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 10, 2011 10:58pm]

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