Soldier survives combat and capture to return home to his sweetheart
Chaplain Ronald P. May
Paradigm Living Concepts
William James Bird wore a special ring during his combat in World War 2. It was an engagement ring of sorts – a Mizpah ring – part of a set that his parents had loaned to him and his fiancé when he went off to war.
Bird’s parents had each worn one band of the Mizpah ring set while his father was off fighting in the Great War (World War 1) in Europe. For both father and son, the rings symbolized not only commitment to their sweethearts but also faith in God to protect each person while they were absent from one another.
“It was also called Mizpah because he said, ‘May the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.’” (Genesis 31:49)
The rings and their symbolic reminder of God’s protection proved to be prophetic in Bird’s survival.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas on January 19th, 1925, Bird was the oldest of three sons. Following his graduation from Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
He reported to Camp Gruber in Muskogee, Oklahoma in September of 1943. Trained as an infantryman, he eventually became squad leader for two 81 mm mortar teams. “The Lieutenant would give the order and then I would decide where to set up the two guns”, said Bird, explaining his role.
He and the men he trained with were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 242nd Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division. It was part of the “Rainbow Division”; so named because it consisted of men from each of the 48 states. Once the division arrived in Europe, it came under the 7th Army.
In mid-November of 1944, the 42nd Division left Camp Gruber and traveled by train to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. A week later, the men boarded a troop transport and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, arriving at Marseille, France on December 8th.
“Maginot Line In-en svg”by Goran tek-en. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“After leaving the ship we went up a hill and set up camp”, remembered Bird. “It was colder than blue blazes!” They stayed there getting organized for a few days and then began moving forward in a motor convoy. For two weeks they traversed France without resistance. “The towns we went through had been blown to bits”, recalled Bird of the destruction left behind by German and later Allied bombers.
Late December, the division reached Strasbourg, on the far eastern part of France, near the Maginot line – a snake tail of fortifications built after World War 1 to protect France from an aggressive attack from her eastern German neighbors.
“We could hear gunfire out in the distance”, recalled Bird. It was along this line that Bird’s division met heavy resistance as the Germans attempted their last major offensive of the war in an operation they called, “Nordwind”.
After turning the Germans back, Bird’s battalion was assigned to the 12th Armored Division to support an attack on the enemy along the Rhine River bridgehead at Herrlisheim, France. During the violent fighting between January 8 -17, 1945 the German defenders repulsed the Allied attack and overwhelmed the units. The division suffered 1,700 casualties. Among them were Bird and some other men, who had been captured by the Germans.
Bird recalled, “A lot of firing was going on, and very little from us, as we had run out of ammo. We set out to get more. Suddenly there was a rifle pointing at me from inside some bushes 4 feet away. The man didn’t shoot. Why it didn’t it go off? I’ll never know. I owe many thanks to the man on the other side of it.”
It was nothing short of a Mizpah miracle for Bird. “God’s influence was surely there”, he concluded. “I’ve thought about it a gazillion times. I was that close to being in the national cemetery.”
After helping to calm the other dozen or so men from his unit who were around him, Bird surrendered himself and his squad to the Germans. “The Germans gathered us up and took us to their officers for interrogation”, Bird said. His future was now uncertain. Would he ever see his fiancé again? Would the Mizpah rings hold true to the promise of God’s protection?
The captured soldiers were then placed on a train and transported across Germany to “Stalag IV-B” – a Prisoner of War camp near Muhlberg, in the eastern part of Germany. One of the largest prisoner camps in Germany, Stalag IV-B was expansive, covering about 74 acres and housing over 30,000 prisoners.
“It was cold”, said Bird. “We slept in bunks that were raised just off the dirt floor.” Each day, Bird and other prisoners went out along the countryside to gather firewood for their barrack’s stove. And then, the men waited. That’s all they could do. Wait, pray and hope to be liberated.
That liberation came in April when the Soviet Army, pushing into Germany from the east, reached Muhlberg. Bird remembered the Russians entering the camp on horseback as the German soldiers fled.
Entrance to Stalag IV-B POW Camp
Bird was among the 30,000 prisoners when the Russians arrived. Initially detained, the Americans were soon released on their own cognizance. Bird and other Americans walked out of imprisonment and headed west, eventually linking back up with Allied Forces.
On June 9th, Bird and other former POW’s departed from France on board a ship. Having suffered from dysentery in the POW camp, Bird received medical attention during the transit. He returned to the U.S. on June 18th .
Street at Stalag IV-B POW Camp
Bird didn’t waste any time getting back to the person that mattered most and was waiting for him back in Kansas City – Betty Cunningham.
Bill and Betty had been born in the same hospital a week apart. They attended school together and had started dating in Jr. High. It was the classic love story. Betty was a cheerleader, while Bill played on the basketball team. A friend introduced them. “I said I’m going to marry that boy,” said Betty. “And I did!” “We fell in love pretty quickly”, added Bill.
Mr. & Mrs. William Bird and Wedding Party
The couple married on July 29, 1945 at an outdoor wedding near Betty’s home. Their union brought to fulfillment the hope of the Mizpah rings that they had worn. They were safely back together again.
“We returned the rings to my parents”, said Bird, noting the exchange of the Mizpah rings for their wedding bands.
Bill and Betty in the Early Years
Bird completed two more years of Army service, receiving his honorable discharge in January of 1947.
The couple moved back to Kansas City after his discharge. Bird worked in automotive repair for a few years, served as a milk man and even owned a gas station.
Meanwhile, Betty gave birth to two children: Connie (1949) and William, Jr. (1951).
In the early 1950’s, Bird started working in Quality Control at General Motors of Kansas City. He visually inspected new parts and checked them against the blue prints. A few years later, he was transferred to GM in Indianapolis, beginning work there on May 1, 1955.
William and Betty Bird, 69th Wedding Anniversary
The family settled briefly in Speedway before moving out to Decatur Township in October of 1956. The Bird’s built a home in the Mayflower Village subdivision and remained there until 1987, when Bird retired from GM after 31 years of service.
In retirement Bill and Betty moved to northern Minnesota, where they had vacationed for many years. They purchased several acres of land along Big Elbow Lake and erected a manufactured home. They loved everything about their life there – the fishing, the people, the beauty.
In 2002 they moved to Zanesville, OH and spent a decade living near their son. They returned to the Indianapolis area in 2012 and lived for 2 years at Heartland Crossing. Most recently they moved into Sugar Grove Senior Living community in Plainfield. The couple will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary in July.
Seven decades later, Bird still struggles with the ‘guilt’ of surrendering in Germany. “I don’t know if I did the right thing or not”, he said, choking up over the memory.
But the blessings of his decision beg for a different interpretation. His wife of 70 years sits beside him. A loving daughter lives in town and looks after them. Shelves are filled with photos of their two children and their grandchildren, great-grandchildren and wonderful life.
Sometimes the bravest thing to do is to survive – even through surrender – and achieve something greater than a battle win or a heroic death – a family. The Mizpah rings would agree, I think.
Paradigm Living Concepts is honored to be serving the William Bird family.
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