By Tom Ehrich
MORGANFIELD, KY -- I tried to imagine my father arriving at Camp Breckinridge in 1942.
He would have enlisted in Indianapolis, explaining away his visual disability, eager for a chance to serve the war effort in any capacity. At the age of 26, he would have gotten on a bus for the ride down US 41 through Evansville and across the Ohio River to the farming community of Morganfield.
He would have found himself in a brand new base built to train infantry, primarily for the European Theater. The base eventually comprised 36,000 acres, 1,800 buildings and 55,000 personnel, making it one of the Army's largest training bases. It also housed up to 4,000 German prisoners of war.
Dad was a small cog in a vast war machine. But duty mattered to him.
While on leave for a wedding in Indianapolis he cast his eyes on a redhead just out of college. He wooed her by recording songs in a booth on base and sending her the 78s. "This is for you, Sally," he began. "'When you wore a tulip, a sweet yellow tulip, and I wore a big red rose....'"
Joining the newlyweds on base, my mother did her part as a dental hygienist. They explored the Kentucky countryside. In 1945, as Hitler's defeat came to seem inevitable, they felt confident about starting a family. My first year or so as a baby was spent at Camp Breckinridge.
As I toured the Camp Breckinridge Museum with a helpful guide, I saw the large murals that German prisoners of war painted to pass the time and earn a little cash for their lives back in Germany some day. One large mural of a castle in Germany took 15 months for prisoner Daniel Mayer to complete. He worked from a postcard his wife had sent him from war-torn Germany.
I saw no specific evidence of my parents. But I'm sure that he took many of the photographs of young men preparing for duty at the front. Copies had been donated by families, as if to say, our husband/father/brother was formed here.
Men didn't stay long. They were rushed to the front. I could picture the pride they and their families felt at green uniforms, divisional badges, signs of rank, and name plates that made clear these were individuals who were sacrificing for their country. Many didn't return alive.
On the way out a woman my age took me aside and said her father was visiting. He had trained at Camp Breckinridge. He didn't recognize my father's name. He was proud of his duty. He takes being a veteran seriously. He told me he met his wife walking into church and brought her here. Now she is in a nursing home in Morganfield.
The museum's main hall is where non-commissioned officers like my father danced either with their wives or with young women brought in from nearby towns. I tried to picture them dancing on the gleaming hardwood floor. Instead, I pictured Dad in a white shirt, Mom in a flowing skirt, standing on a bridge somewhere in the countryside around Camp Breckinridge, dreaming of life yet to unfold.