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Two former POWs reunite

By Joe DePriest

Even in that distant, pre-digital age, it was still a small world.

As teenagers in the 1930s, Carl “Cotton” Bolick of Cramerton and Henry Barr of Charlotte played against each other in high school football games.

Their friendship didn’t really begin until they landed in the same German prison camp during World War II.

Both had been wounded when their planes were shot down on bombing raids.

In prison, they talked about their homes in Gaston and Mecklenburg counties. They remembered flapjacks, fried chicken and country ham as they lapped up a thin cabbage soup sprinkled with worms. And they survived.

Liberated by Russian army troops in May, 1945, Bolick and Barr made it back home. The last time they saw or spoke to one another was when they got together in Cramerton in 1946. Since then, they drifted apart as their lives moved on.

But one of life’s little miracles took place a few weeks ago: the two old friends – both age 89 – reunited.

It happened like this. In January, I wrote a column about Bolick sending a letter of thanks to three German women who’d saved his life during World War II.

In Gastonia, a relative of Barr spotted the piece and made a phone call. Then Barr, who lives in the Caldwell County community of Collettsville, got in touch with Bolick.

They made arrangements to meet at the Empire Buffet restaurant in Lenoir. Bolick went with his friend, Dot Spangler of Shelby, and Barr came with his son, Robert Barr, of York, S.C..

Food was a big topic of conversation.

Bolick jokingly asked Barr if he’d like to order boiled potatoes and cabbage soup for lunch.

Potatoes would be OK, Barr replied. But he’d skip the cabbage soup. Only the two of them knew the inside story of that soup or what passed for soup in the prison camp at Barth, Germany.

Trying to escape

For the next few hours, the friends enjoyed a bountiful buffet meal while dipping into an even richer pool of memories.

Of course, they talked about football. Bolick played for Cramerton High, and Barr was on the team at Charlotte’s Tech High. They were opposing fullbacks, squaring off on the ballfields of Carolina as war brewed overseas.

The winds of war would blow them into the Army Air Corps, Bolick as a top turret gunner on a B-24 and Barr a tail gunner on a B-17.

Barr was shot down on Feb. 11, 1944; Bolick on March 18.

What were the chances of these two prisoners winding up in the same train boxcar, herded like cattle from one German POW camp to another?

Bolick and Barr didn’t know they were in the same boxcar until after they met in the same prison. About 1,000 POWs were packed into the complex 60 miles across the Baltic Sea from Sweden. Rooms in wooden barracks housed 24 people each, and they slept on wooden slabs fitted with burlap mattresses stuffed with straw and lice.

Bolick and Barr remembered getting monthly Red Cross parcels – or what was left of them after German guards pilfered the contents.

Inside were crackers that tasted like dog biscuits; cans of milk and margarine; three packs of cigarettes and three blocks of chocolate – each one worth $300 in POW card games.

At every meal, they got something that resembled cabbage soup: one puny cabbage leaf floating in water with worms.

They ate boiled potatoes and three slices of “saw-mill” bread that didn’t taste too bad when it was smeared with margarine. Powerful coffee brewed from barley helped wash everything down.

The room’s senior POW was a man named Woodrow from Plymouth, N.C. He kept things running smoothly and picked up the prisoners’ daily ration of soup and potatoes.

Other personalities included a German guard nicknamed “Big Stoop” because he kicked newly-arrived prisoners, in the rear, hoping to shake loose any concealed contraband.

Escape was always on POWs’ minds. They dug a tunnel, but they didn’t burrow deep enough. Outside the barracks, the tunnel caved in when German guards stepped on top of it.

Remarkable pair

Around the restaurant table in Lenoir that day, a flood of memories spilled out.

The reunion was a special moment for two ex-POWs.

They held on to it for a while – then went their separate ways.

“He’s a really nice person,” said Bolick, retired coach at West Mecklenburg High School and athletic director at Charlotte Country Day. “We enjoyed talking so much.”

“It was a real nice visit,” said Barr, who was employed by Hankins Funeral Home (now Hankins & Whittington) and later worked for Industrial and Textile Supply in Charlotte. “It was great to bring back old times.”

Barr’s son, Robert, sent me a copy of his dad’s account of “How I Earned My Purple Heart.” It’s a 2 ½-page war epic: Henry Barr, hit by flack and machine gun fire, bailed out of the plane over France with a broken leg. Bleeding and semiconscious, unable to control his descent, he hit an embankment, fracturing his left leg and splitting a knee cap.

He was taken by German soldiers to a hospital in Amiens, where a British bomb fell on the building, blowing Barr into the air, almost to the ceiling. A nurse counted 15 wounds on him and with all his bandages; someone said Barr looked like an “Egyptian mummy.” From the hospital, he was taken to prison.

When Bolick bailed out of his plane, he had a shrapnel wound in his foot. Three young German women loaded him onto a horse-drawn cart and took him to their parents’ house, locking the doors against a hostile crowd outside. They packed straw around his wound to control the bleeding, saying “we’re Germans but we’re not Nazis.” The Nazis found him later.

Bolick told me last week he’d just gotten a letter from one of the protectors – 89-year-old Berti Duell of Heilengenburg, Germany. She’s doing fine and wished he could come over for “a big celebration.’’

Bolick and Barr are a remarkable pair: lucky to have met, lucky to survive the war, and lucky to reunite. I’m lucky to have made the connection with them.

Joe DePriest: 604-868-7745; jdepriest@charlotteobserver.com
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