After 50 years, a fortunate coincidence reunited a World War II veteran with a German soldier whom he had never forgotten.
Young Donald Barton was studying genetics at the University of California in Berkeley when, during his senior year, he was called up from the Army Air Forces Reserves to serve in World War II.
During the war, Barton sustained severe leg fractures, spent eight months in a prisoner-of-war camp and survived on a near-starvation diet of rutabagas and black bread. Only through a chain of small miracles — “serendipities,” Barton calls them — did he make it home alive.
Some 50 years after his return and long after his wartime memories ceased to be part of his everyday thoughts, another chain of serendipitous events reunited Barton with a long-lost angel of his past, a man whose simple kindness may have saved Barton from being killed while he was a prisoner-of-war.
Barton’s story — which features in a presentation he gives to audiences all around the community — begins in 1942, when he was a 21-year-old aviation cadet called into service from the Army Reserves.
Barton trained as both a navigator and a bombardier, and by January 1944 he was a certified B-17 pilot.
He was sent overseas on Feb. 1 and flew 19 missions between March and July, bombing military targets in France and Germany, including several over Normandy during the D-Day invasion.
Barton’s luck ran out on July 19, 1944, when on his 20th mission — targeting an aircraft plant near Augsburg, Germany — his plane was hit by enemy fire.
“We lost two engines and were knocked out of formation,” Barton recalls. “We tried to make it to Switzerland, but the plane was on fire. We were down to one engine when the bailout order came.”
Four of the crew never made it out of the plane. Barton and four others jumped, parachuting directly into enemy territory. Scattered by the wind, they all became prisoners of war.
Life as a POW
Barton landed on a mountaintop and broke two bones in his left leg.
German troops found him and put him in a truck, headed for Innsbruck, Austria. The convoy stopped along the way at an inn in a small village called Telfs, so that the German soldiers could take turns getting something to eat and drink. Barton was left in the truck.
From his perch, Barton noticed that a man had left the inn and was walking toward him.
The man’s name was Joseph Harting; he was the innkeeper, he explained to the soldiers, and he asked for permission to bring Barton inside to give him something to eat.
The soldiers gave their OK, and Harting led Barton inside. The men shared a brief conversation in Harting’s kitchen and shared snacks that Harting’s mother had provided. Harting said that he was a German soldier home on leave, but that he — like Barton — wished that the war would end.
“That was the extent of the conversation,” Barton recalls. “I left him my name, he left me his, and we didn’t see each other again.”
It was a welcome, though brief, respite from the painful reality of the war.
Barton returned to the truck, and the soldiers continued on to Innsbruck, where Barton’s leg was straightened and, the next morning, set in a cast. He was taken the same day to a German air force hospital in Munich, where he spent six weeks recuperating.
Barton’s next move, in October 1944, was to a prisoner-of-war camp in northern Germany, on the Baltic Sea. The camp, known as Stalag Luft I, was home to more than 7,000 POWs.
Russian forces liberated the camp on May 1, 1945 — “and they flew 7,000 of us out in two days. They say it was the biggest POW lift ever,” Barton recalls. When he left, due to the camp’s scanty rations, he weighed just 116 pounds.
His next home was Camp Lucky Strike, an American camp for liberated POWs near Janville, France. After three weeks’ rest, he was sent home on a hospital ship, arriving in Charleston, S.C., in June 1945 and then traveling by train to an Army hospital in San Francisco. He was discharged in December 1945 and returned home to his wife, Virginia, whom he had wed just a month before going overseas.
Barton returned to college and studied genetics.
The post-war years
In 1951, Barton moved his family across the country to Geneva, where he had accepted a job at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. Nine years later, he became the station’s director, a post he held for more than two decades.
Gradually, Barton’s war experiences — including the unlikely kindness of one German soldier — were tucked away as dim memories. Years, then decades passed.
In Austria, several parties had been trying to piece together a war history of the region. In the early 1990s, Stephen Dietrick, a student at the University of Innsbruck, had interviewed Harting — the innkeeper who had shared a snack with Barton back in 1945 — and incorporated the story of the men’s meeting into his doctoral thesis, which was an oral history of the war. A professor at the university, Thomas Albrick, also incorporated Harting’s account of that meeting into a book Albrick was writing about the war.
A former British airman named Keith Bullock, who had settled in Austria after the war, read Albrick’s book and was intrigued by Harting’s story. Bullock decided to see if he could track down the POW whom Harting had taken in so briefly, and put an ad seeking information about Barton in a U.S. POW newsletter.
Barton didn’t subscribe to that newsletter, but another member of Barton’s crew — then living in Texas — did. The man called Barton and read him the ad.
“We agreed that it had to be me,” Barton recalls. He immediately wrote to Bullock, who sought out Harting and told the innkeeper that he had been in contact with Barton, the American POW.
“Five days after I wrote, I got a phone call. ‘Mr. Barton?’ he said. ‘This is Joseph Harting. I am the innkeeper,” said Barton.
“It was pretty exciting because I had thought of him often,” said Barton. In the early 1960s, Barton and his wife had visited Austria and tried to find the village where Harting’s inn was located. But they had no success — they didn’t really know where to look.
After their first phone call, Barton and Harting exchanged letters and talked about getting together at some point. But they didn’t know when that would happen.
An unlikely reunion
In May, 1994, Barton got another phone call — this time from Thomas Albrick, the University of Innsbruck professor who had incorporated Barton and Harting’s story into his book. Albrick was calling to invite Barton and his wife to Telfs, the Austrian village where Harting’s inn was located — for a week’s vacation overlapping the 50th anniversary of Barton and Harting’s first meeting. The village of Telfs would foot the bill.
“Needless to say, I accepted,” said Barton.
The trip took place in July, 1994, 50 years after Barton’s plane was shot down. During the week, Barton was taken up the mountain near Telfs where he had landed after jumping from his plane. On the actual anniversary, July 19, he took four roses up the mountain to a spot where four of his fellow crew members had been buried by German soldiers.
Barton and Harting’s reunion — shown on national television — took place in the same kitchen where they had met some 50 years before.
“The kitchen didn’t look the same — it had been rather dark and poorly lit 50 years ago, and now it was modern-looking and bright,” said Barton. “But we pretended it was the same, for the television crews.”
While the men were talking, Harting pulled two shiny British pennies out of his wallet — souvenirs Barton had given him during their first meeting.
“It was overwhelming,” he recalls. “I had had memories of that meeting, very clearly all those 50 years, and a fondness in my heart for the friendliness that had been expressed by (Harting) and his mother.”
At the end of the week, Barton and his wife put on a dinner for all the people in Telfs who had helped him to reconnect with Harting.
At that dinner, Stephen Dietrick — the student who had first interviewed Harting, thereby putting into motion the chain of events that led to the reunion — added one more piece to the puzzle.
Dietrick showed Barton a police report from July 1945, stating that a German soldier had been arrested in Telfs the same day Barton was there, for “instigating a crowd to assassinate an airman.”
It turned out that while Barton was dining with Harting, the German soldiers waiting outside were trying to talk the residents of Telfs into killing the American prisoner. Harting’s mother, Barton was told at the reunion, had diffused the situation by talking to the soldiers, reminding them that some of their own relatives were POWs in Allied camps. They should treat Barton justly and kindly, Mrs. Harting argued, in hopes that their own relatives’ captors would do the same.
Barton returned home at the end of the week, his heart filled with gratitude both for the Hartings and all the many individuals who had helped to arrange the reunion.
He began to tell his “gem of a story” to community groups all around the area, seeing those presentations as a way to memorialize his fellow soldiers.
Barton remained in touch with Harting until the innkeeper died in 2000, and he still corresponds by e-mail with Keith Bullock and his wife, Helene.
In 2005, the village of Telfs erected a permanent memorial on the mountain where Barton crashed on that fateful day in July 1945, marking the graves of his crewmates.
Barton has yet to see that memorial in person, though he has seen pictures.
The story of his unlikely reunion with Harting and his return to Telfs, says Barton, is “a pleasant war story. It’s an after-war story, so to speak, about the tremendous interaction of people, and the serendipity of things — how these seemingly unrelated events came together to produce the outcome of mine and Joseph Harting’s getting together again.”
Contact Hilary Smith at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 343 or at firstname.lastname@example.org