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.