Kenny Steward doesn’t want to be known as a hero. Although he suffered in a German prisoner of war camp, the 87-year-old Clarksville resident said the true heroes of World War II were the ones who never came home.
Despite starvation and violence during that time, Steward admitted he had it lucky. He lived.
“Hero? Nah, I’m not a hero. I just did what at that time they did, served their country,” Steward said. “I’m very fortunate. I came through, I thank the good Lord for it.”
Even with the passage of almost 70 years, Steward still remembers certain aspects of his life as a POW in detail. Others he has forgotten, or has decided not to share. Sometimes grief can last longer than the memories themselves. There is a name, however, he can’t forget.
“I was there with one guy who was married with five kids at home. I always felt kind of sorry for him,” Steward said. “He had a family, and in my opinion he shouldn’t have been there. He was an old country boy.”
Reed would be mentioned several more times during the conversation. What happened to the soldier from Carrollton, Ky., is anyone’s guess. Steward’s cousin Dick Jones has tried to find the man on his relative’s mind, but to no avail. Jones has grown up listening to these stories of survival, and knows them well. Reed is one of the few names Steward continues to mention, most likely because he knew him longest.
Back in the U.S., Steward and Reed went through basic training together. Drafted while a senior at Manual High School in Louisville, Steward entered the Army right after graduation. With six weeks of training as an artillery man under his belt, the 18-year-old found himself on a boat with other members of the Golden Acorn’s 87th Division going to Great Britain for more extensive drill work.
And then the Battle of the Bulge — the bloodiest combat fought by the Americans during all of WWII — began. Allied reinforcements were needed, and so Steward’s ship instead of continuing to England made a sharp turn toward Le Havre, France. Upon disembarking, the young soldier immediately was driven to the front lines of the fighting.
“They greeted us with open arms,” Steward said.
Humor hasn’t been lost on the veteran, even when discussing his war memories.
“It was a hell of an experience for a 19-year-old kid, but I grew up fast.”
Shelling would eventually force his platoon to seek shelter.
“Kenny and the others were in the basement of the farmhouse trying to avoid being killed by the shelling. It was machine gun fire, rifle fire and artillery,” Jones said. “And the Germans surrounded where they were at and they hollered in there in English, ‘surrender or die.’ They stuck the machine guns in the basement windows.”
Steward and his team surrendered, taking the first step on what would become his long road to surviving incarceration by the Germans. At that moment, his journey was only beginning.
Once taken prisoner, the Germans marched Steward from camp to camp. The American Army was making headway into Germany at this point in the war. Every time the allies advanced the line closer to Adolph Hitler, the Nazis moved the POWs farther away. Often, the men were led straight through incinerated German towns where both children and adults would curse and throw things at the prisoners.
“They marched us right on down the main drag to show us off. In fact, the kids and the grownups would spit on us,” Steward said. “At the time, I couldn’t blame them. We were their enemy.”
Conditions at the camps weren’t any better. Men were shot for not following basic orders. Jones said a friend of Steward’s, a man named Wachowski, was executed right before his eyes. Many more starved to death due to the brutal conditions. When they did, the other prisoners had to bury them.
“That was the only time that I got out of the camp and the guards went with us,” Steward said.
At this stage, many of the POWs were too weak to carry the bodies out to the makeshift cemetery. Corpses had to be dragged through the cold ground. Once on burial detail, Steward remembered having to scoop snow and ice with his hands to cover a fallen comrade, the ground too hardened by the cold. Later in the spring, they would formally bury the men.
When food was available, it was never enough. Steward said he once gathered rotten cabbages from a field and was forced at gunpoint to give up much of his work.
“When there was food, there’d be maybe a pot of water with a head of cabbage floating in it or maybe a carrot floating in it. And that would be their meal. It was always liquids,” Jones said.
German guards would try and barter bread with the prisoners in exchange for personal possessions. One wanted Steward’s class ring, yet Steward never gave in. After release, he swore he would never go hungry again.
Starvation, however, did take its toll. At the end of his imprisonment, the 6-foot-tall Kentuckian weighed a scant 85 pounds.
As the allied forces advanced, the younger guards abandoned the camps. Older guards remained in the locked prisons with no food. Two American soldiers eventually found the camp after their army cohorts had already progressed toward Berlin.
“It was two guys in a jeep that were just out there bore-assing around. They found us there,” Steward said. “In fact, they were the ones that liberated us.”
Upon release, Steward spent a year in a Kentucky Army hospital recuperating. Due to a hit in the mouth with a German rifle butt, his teeth needed extensive work. Plus, there was the malnourishment issue. Here, his future wife and hospital volunteer Christine helped in his recovery. In the end, he said that meeting the love of his life made his whole experience worthwhile.
Life continued after the war. Steward married and had two girls. He would become a local butcher. In time, the medals, including the bronze star he earned while in the service, would be passed down to his grandchild, Travis Haire. Hanging in his office, the awards remind Haire of the sacrifices this generation of WWII veterans made.
“It’s a reminder that there are a whole lot of people out there doing a lot of things to protect our country that we take for granted. Especially for me personally, it’s to keep things in perspective,” he said. “That generation, specifically grandpa, went through a lot so that we could benefit from it greatly. It’s just a humbling reminder of those sacrifices.”
Still, Stewart doesn’t consider himself special nor does he dwell on those old experiences.
“I’ve had a good life. I have no complaints whatsoever,” he said. “Even with what I went through being a prisoner of war, everything is fine.”
— For more local news, subscribe to the News and Tribune print or eEdition at newsandtribune.com/subscribe