KERRVILLE, Texas — Wayne Gotke already owns several pieces of memorabilia from the time his father, also named Wayne, spent in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.
There’s the POW identification tag each prisoner was issued upon entering a camp. A copy of the silk map of France and Germany many escapees used to help guide them to freedom, reports The San Antonio Express-News. And a leaflet distributed by the Germans tempting POWs to join them in fighting the Russians for one year in exchange for the promise that they’d be allowed safe passage home at war’s end.
But on Friday, the San Antonio native, who now lives in Kerrville, will receive perhaps the most valuable piece of memorabilia: His father’s inscribed gold wedding ring, recently rediscovered more than 75 years after it was lost in Stalag Luft III, the German POW camp later made famous by the movie “The Great Escape.”
Gotke will receive the ring during a presentation at the Kerr County War Memorial on the grounds of the county courthouse in Kerrville.
"My parents divorced when I was a baby, and I never had an adult conversation with my father," said Gotke, 72, and a retired federal law enforcement agent. "But I'm truly excited to receive my father's ring."
The story of the ring's return is one of post-war reconciliation and efforts to pay respects due to former POWs. It began in September, during a routine excavation by a team from the POW Camps Museum of what was one of the many prisoner huts at the camp which, during the war, was located near the German of Sagan.
“We do two kinds of work here,” said Marek Lazarz, director of the museum. The museum is located in an area that, at the end of the war, was given to Poland as part of war reparations and is now near the renamed town of Zagan. “We do archaeological searching, but we also clear away the brush that grows over some of the abandoned areas that used to be foundations of the prison barracks.”
On this day, one of the volunteers was excavating a dirt-filled sink and drain in what had been the bathroom of barracks No. 139. As he knocked the accumulated dirt out of the drain, a metal ring fell out.
"We were not very excited at first, because we find stuff all the time," Lazarz said. "Pieces of metal, pilots wings, even rings."
But upon closer inspection, they realized that the inside of the ring was inscribed with the words “Ann to Wayne 1942” and “MIZPAH” in all caps. That’s the Hebrew word for “watchtower” but has also come to mean an emotional bond between two people who are separated but hope to reunite.
"That's when we became excited," he added.
Located 100 miles southeast of Berlin, Stalag Luft III housed up to 10,000 Allied prisoners during the war, mostly officers, mainly British and Americans. The camp was run by the German Luftwaffe, and, while by no means easy, life there was more comfortable than that for enlisted airmen at other camps, according to Marilyn Walton, a historical researcher and author of three books (two with Michael C. Eberhardt) about the camp.
"It was more boring than desperate," said Walton, whose father also was a Stalag Luft III prisoner. "They'd get mail from home, Red Cross food packages and they had sports equipment so they played ice hockey and baseball."
The POWs also had very particular sets of skills, such tunneling, building clandestine radios or forging documents to help escapees travel to safety. These skills helped support numerous escape attempts, the most famous being the one immortalized in "The Great Escape," the 1963 epic starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough.
To prepare for that March 1944 attempt, prisoners spent nearly a year digging three tunnels, nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry. The Germans discovered Tom, and Dick was abandoned after it collapsed. While 76 prisoners eventually escaped through Harry, only three made it to freedom. The rest were captured and 50 of those were killed by the Germans on direct orders from Adolf Hitler. According to Walton, Hitler wanted to have them all killed but was talked out of it by Hermann Göring who feared retaliation against German POWs in the U.S.
The elder Wayne Gotke was not involved in the Great Escape, but he did make several attempts of his own. He had a unique strategy for staying free.
"Dad was dark complected and, because he grew up in San Antonio and went to Alamo Heights High School, he spoke Spanish fluently," said his son. "Spain was neutral during World War II, so there were a lot of Spanish laborers in Germany. So if he came across a German soldier during an escape, he'd start speaking Spanish. The Germans usually couldn't understand, so eventually they'd just let him go."
But not every German soldier was fooled, and Wayne Gotke never hit what his son calls a "home run," making it to freedom.
Before becoming a prisoner, Wayne Gotke was a navigator on a B-24D bomber flying out of Shipdham, United Kingdom. In February 1943, while on his 11th or 12th mission, his plane was shot down by German fighters near Bad Zwischenahn, Germany, exploding in midair and killing eight of the 10 crew members. Although wounded, Wayne Gotke was able to parachute to safety, eventually being captured and sent to Stalag Luft III.
Flying with the crew that day was New York Times correspondent Robert Post, who was a member of the "Writing 69th," a group of eight war correspondents, including Andy Rooney and Walter Cronkite, who'd completed a rigorous, weeklong training program to prepare them to accompany crews on bombing missions.
Post was the first of the group to fly a mission and his death put a quick end to the program.
After the ring was cleaned, a researcher and guide at the camp museum painstakingly reviewed records kept by the prisoners themselves looking for a POW in the South Compound section of the camp named Wayne. There was only one, Wayne Gotke.
Lazarz had worked with Walton on previous efforts to track down prisoners and it took only a quick online search for her to find Gotke's home phone number in Kerrville.
Gotke surprised her by describing the ring inscription exactly, including the names and the word "Mizpah."
"I asked Marilyn if I could have the ring back, and she told me they would try," he said. Technically, the ring was property of the Polish government, but officials there quickly released it so it could be returned.
Despite the sentiment expressed in the ring's inscription, Ann and Wayne Gotke divorced not long after his return, when their son was only 4 months old. His mother, who died in 2002, remarried when he was 6. Over the years they lost contact with the elder Gotke and learned he'd died in 1979 only when his then-wife called to inform them.
Although Gotke remembers his mother describing the ring, no one knows exactly how it was lost — although he has a couple of theories.
"My father was in the camp for almost two years, so he probably lost a lot of weight," he said. "Since the ring was found in a bathroom sink drain, it could have slipped off his finger while he was washing his hands. And the Germans wouldn't have wanted to help him retrieve it."
As it was becoming increasingly obvious that the war had turned inexorably against the Germans, the camp was hastily evacuated in January 1945. Gotke believes that, in the chaos, his father may have inadvertently left the ring behind.
The prisoners were first marched 52 miles in subzero temperatures to Spremberg and then taken by train to Stalag VII-A POW camp near the town of Moosburg in southern Bavaria. That camp was liberated in April by Patton's Third Army and Gotke returned home shortly thereafter.
Like all those who've been touched by the ring, Gotke said he is surprised that, after being lost for more than three-quarters of a century, the ring was finally found.
"You could have knocked me down when Marilyn told me they'd found the ring," he said. "I've always had an interest in what my father did during the war. All that I know came from my mother and from other POWs I've talked with. But having the ring will help fill in some of the blanks."
Gotke was so thankful for the help he's received he made a $500 donation to the museum and said he hopes to visit sometime in the next few years. He's also decided that the ring will be passed on to his own son, who is 43, lives in Austin and is also named Wayne.
And Lazarz said he plans to install an exhibit in the museum telling the story of this ring.