Images courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri, from the Lowell and Margaret M. McMurtrey Papers. 1942-1971 (C4172).

Lowell McMurtrey—Part 3

On June 7, 1944, after hearing nothing about her husband for over four months, Lowell McMurtrey’s wife Margaret received a telegram from the War Department stating a shortwave broadcast from Germany had been intercepted, in which Lowell was purportedly heard saying he was a prisoner of war. Several days later, his mother Adel McMurtrey received a telegram from the War Department: “Your son Private First Class Lowell McMurtrey is a prisoner of war of the German government.”
One of the things I learned researching this article was people in the United States listened to overseas broadcasts on shortwave radios for war news. If they picked up information about an individual service member, they would mail postcards and letters to family members across the country. The McMurtrey files in Missouri State Historical (SHS) records contain numerous such cards and letters.
The Howell County Gazette reported Margaret McMurtrey “. . . received over thirty letters and telegrams from people, mostly from the east, who had also heard the broadcast. One of these letters described the voice as American and deep and slow which is the way Lowell talks.”
Lowell was captured February 24, 1944, at the battle of Casino, Italy, after his tank became disabled and was surrounded by enemy soldiers. The West Plains Journal-Gazette reported that “he was shot through the chest at that time.” However, Lowell’s statement in the interview conducted by Manuscript Specialist Tom Miller, as part of the SHS Oral History Program, Collection C3975, on August 20, 2004, differs from the newspaper account. Apparently, a shell fragment hit him in the chest severely damaging his lung after German soldiers herded Lowell and other prisoners into a barn.
From the SHS 2004 interview:
Miller: “Were you ever wounded?”
McMurtrey: “Yeah, I got wounded in the lung. A shell came through this barn, hit me in the lung. I fell on the floor.”
Miller: “And that came through a barn, you said:” 
McMurtrey: “Came through the top of the barn.”
* * * *
Miller: “Oh, this was after you’d been taken prisoner:” 
McMurtrey: “After I was taken prisoner.” 
Miller: “Then you were wounded. I see. And this was American fire that was coming in.” McMurtrey: “American fire.” 
Miller: So you were hit by friendly fire.” 
McMurtrey: “Friendly fire.”
German doctors treated Lowell for two months at a hospital in Italy, where, the Journal-Gazette reported Lowell saying, “he got the best of medical treatment.” From the hospital, Germans soldiers loaded Lowell and other prisoners onto a train car and shipped them to a Stalag in Germany. From there he was transferred by railway to Stalag II B at Hammerstein in northern Germany.
During his confinement as a POW, he was able to send and receive mail with restrictions as to size and content, namely, postcards. The cards he sent had postage stamps with Adolf Hitler’s portrait. 
An interesting letter in the SHS files, dated March 10, 1945, came from teachers at WSHS saying, “We want to let you know that we are thinking of you often . . ..” Several teachers signed it, including, T.G. Munford, Jessie Munford, Lorene Masnor, and Myrtle Dunivin—teachers Lowell had in school, and with whom he would later be a teaching colleague. [Many HCN readers, including me, had those same teachers.]
Lowell’s correspondence reflected he was generally treated well by the guards, but the food was bad. The Journal-Gazette reported, “They would have starved without their Red Cross Packages. For breakfast they had a cup of coffee, for dinner a pint of grass soup, which was almost always wormy and which was made out of dandelions, and for supper about three slices of bread.”
In the SHS interview, Margaret and Lowell said they wrote each other every day. When asked by the interviewer how it made him feel when he received Margaret’s letters, he said, “Real good. I didn’t know she still loved me.”
As bad as circumstances were, they were about to get worse. As the Russians advanced from the East, the Germans feared Stalag II B would be overtaken and the prisoners liberated. On January 29, 1945, the guards began marching the prisoners on a 600-mile slog toward Munich during the cold, northern German winter. Lowell said the snow was over his boots and they slept outdoors or in barns and got lice. They only had rations for the first week and then had to live off the land. 
The Journal-Gazette posted, “He was one of the twelve hundred that started the march from the Stalag. They marched 600 miles in two months and only four hundred and fifty-eight survived.”.
The survivors of the forced march ended up at Stalag VII A, a large POW camp at the outskirts of Moosburg, Germany, about 25 miles from Munich. After 16 months as a prisoner of war, this is where his captivity ended. In a letter to his parents, reprinted in the Victory Edition of the Journal-Gazette, Lowell said, “The Russians liberated me on April 29 [1945].”
Other newspapers also indicated the Russians had liberated him, which suggests a different picture of the circumstances of his release than the actual facts. Of the Russians, Margaret stated in the SHS interview, “[T]hey didn’t liberate you because you took off before they got there. Lowell responded, “Took off before they got there . . . we knew the Americans were nearby.” 
With the Russians approaching, German guards began deserting the Stalag. Although Lowell said that he had never tried to escape, when the German guards evacuated from Stalag VII A, he and fellow prisoner Darrell Hibbard walked to the American forces. In the letter to his parents, reprinted in the West Plains Journal, Lowell wrote, “They [Russians] treated us very nice, got plenty of rides to the American lines.” The Journal-Gazette reported Lowell said he “kissed the first American soldier he saw after getting loose.”
Lowell departed for America from LaHarve, France, on a naval transport and arrived home on June 28, 1945. He received an extended furlough and arrived by train at Cabool where Troop G Highway Patrolman Ted R. Taylor picked him up and drove him to Willow Springs.
In September 1945, Lowell and Margaret traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for two weeks of rest and recouperation. Lowell continued to have physical pain from his wound that required an operation at the Veteran’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, in February 1946.
Lowell’s official date of separation from the Army was October 13, 1945. His Separation Qualification Record shows he was awarded four battle stars and a Good Conduct Medal. 
For those who didn’t know Lowell McMurtrey, now, you do. For those who did, I hope you know him better—I do.
My thanks to the State Historical Society of Missouri for the information obtained from the Lowell and Margaret M. McMurtrey Papers (C4172), 1942-1971.
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