The Wedding Ring
The battle raged close and fierce that November day in 1944. In spite of the ear-splitting noise of gunfire, Ray Seward heard screams from wounded soldiers all around him. Ray, along with other American Army Infantrymen, had holed up in an old barn near Schmitz, Germany, in the midst of a fiery battle with the Germans during World War II.
Ray fired his machine gun until a blast hit him in the face with such force that it threw him backward against the stone wall of the barn. Before he got on his feet, German soldiers invaded the building and a German Sergeant grabbed him, ripped off his watch and reached for his gold wedding band. "No!" Ray said, and closed his fist. The face of his wife Delores flashed before him. They'd only married two years earlier and he'd never taken that ring off his finger. "No!" he repeated as the Sergeant tried to pry Ray's fist open.
The Sergeant reached over, pulled Ray's 45 pistol from his holster and aimed it at Ray when another German officer yelled, "Nein, Gunther, Nein!" Together the two officers dragged Ray out of the barn, bleeding from head, face and mouth. His glasses and many of his teeth remained where they were blown off. They shoved him into an ambulance already filled with screaming and crying wounded. When Ray began vomiting blood someone threw him out onto the ground. Blackness overtook him.
Eventually Ray felt someone lifting him into a wheelbarrow. The next thing he knew, he lay on a table in a hospital, with rows of wounded soldiers lying on similar tables.
Above the screams and cries of the wounded, a tall, stern, German doctor spoke angrily to a short, elderly Catholic nun. The Sister reached into Ray's vest pocket and removed his New Testament, looked at it, and carefully placed it back in his pocket. She smiled at him and patted his arm reassuringly. Then she spoke loudly and authoritatively to the young doctor, shaking her finger at him, and directing him in some action that Ray didn't understand. For the brief moment before he blacked out again, Ray felt that he remained in good hands.
Ray awoke to terrible, bone-chilling cold. The open sky directly above him loomed close, gray, and cloudy. He looked to his right and saw a dead German soldier, eyes and mouth open, lying next to him. Looking to his left, he saw other dead soldiers lying with him on what looked like a loading dock. They think I'm dead, Ray thought. I'm lying here with dead soldiers ready to be taken away!
Just then he heard German voices and saw that two hospital orderlies standing on the dock smoking had noticed Ray moving and started toward him. They carried him back into the hospital and put him on a bed. A doctor set his broken nose and removed mutilated flesh from his face and neck. The same kind nun once again patted Ray's arm, reassuringly. "Gottes Segen," she said.
Ray noticed his wedding ring still on his finger. When no one was looking, then he took it off and tied it into the cuff of his sock. "Delores," Ray said in a whisper. "Delores." Ray wanted so badly to get back home to the wife and back to building road graders and tractors in Mason City, Iowa. "Lord, let me live to see Delores again, please," he prayed.
Ray felt just as scared as every other soldier fighting in Europe during World War II, but he kept his Army-issue Testament with him, reading it often, praying for safekeeping. After basic training at Camp Blanding, Florida, Ray had become part of K Company, 112th Infantry, 28th Division, shipped to Glasco, Scotland, then England, then on to France for the Normandy Invasion. He fought all through France, Belgium and Luxembourg.
They lost almost their entire company in France. Over and over again, Ray's life was spared while other soldiers in front of him, behind him and next to him were killed and wounded. Once they ducked through a small gap in a wall and the soldier who went through in front of him was shot down. Bullets whizzed between Ray's legs as he passed through the gap and kept on going, but the guy behind him was killed, as well. Ray kept reading his Bible and asking God for protection. But now Ray, too, was shot.
After six weeks of recuperation at the overcrowded, understaffed German hospital, they gave Ray a long, woolen coat from a dead Polish soldier and told him he must leave the hospital. He felt grateful for the coat because his uniform was riddled with holes and it was mid-winter.
The Germans shipped Ray by boxcar to Stalag IVB Prisoner of War Camp in East Germany. Those four days and four nights locked in a boxcar crammed with other POW's were almost unbearable. The air in the boxcar gave off an indescribably suffocating, eye-stinging stench. They fed the prisoners only once during those four days. Periodically they were allowed to get out to relieve themselves and carry out the dead. The larger men died faster, probably because their bodies needed more food to survive. Some of them lived, but lost their minds.
On the third day, one man, too weak and sick to even stand, said, "Better we just give up and die now."
"May I pray for us?" Ray asked. With their permission, Ray prayed aloud, asking God to give them all strength to live. Without his glasses, Ray was unable to read his Bible, but he recited his favorite verse from memory: "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord, your God, goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Deuteronomy 31:6." When they arrived at the POW Camp they were all still alive.
Twenty-eight separate compounds stood in the camp. The guards placed him into a Polish compound at first because of his Polish coat, but later moved him into an American compound. The guards took all his personal belongings, but his wedding band remained hidden in his sock.
Again, many died all around him, while Ray lived. His face wound oozed pus for many weeks, but Ray pumped water onto his handkerchief and cleaned it carefully as often as he could manage. Eventually it began to heal over.
Ray longed for his wife. The Germans had taken her picture, but every night in bed Ray whispered, "Delores" over and over and tried to visualize her face. In his weakened condition he only vaguely remembered how she looked. POWs were not permitted to write letters. Many questions came to Ray's mind as Ray strained to remember Delores' face. How is she doing? What must she think? How soon can he let her know he's still alive? Will she still love him with nearly half his face gone?
The prisoners received a small piece of either cabbage or turnips once a day. Ray thanked God for the worms, the only meat he ever got to sustain him. One day the prisoners each received two slices of bread. Ray ate the first slice, taking small bites and chewing until nothing remained. He hid the second slice inside the collar of his coat to eat the next day. In the morning he discovered someone had stolen the bread while he slept. Ray cried.
When prisoners became too weak or sick to work the guards shot them. If they stood too close to another compound the guards might shoot them. Some prisoners were shot for no reason at all. Guards let trained killer dogs loose at night, making it impossible for prisoners to go outside their building after dark. They hauled away dead bodies daily.
After many months of imprisonment and starvation, Ray became extremely weak. He prayed constantly, "Lord, keep me on my feet. Keep me strong. Thank you for keeping me alive." Just when he feared he couldn't work the next day, he began to recite his favorite Bible verse again. Instead he heard a small voice whisper the words to him, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." He knew God had just spoken to him, and he felt comforted.
Later that same day, a British POW, Sergeant William Braceford, said, "Hey mucca, (meaning "friend") will you bury the dead again tomorrow?"
"I think so, but I'm so weak. I'm afraid I can't work another day, and they'll shoot me."
"Then switch with me," Braceford said. "I speak German and I've figured a way to escape, but I must be out there burying the dead. We'll trade camp dog tags and I'll bribe a guard to move me into your compound and you into mine. Will one of your friends switch with my friend as well?"
Roy (Slim) Mitchell, an American POW from Louisiana, who always sparred back and forth with Ray about the Civil War, teamed up with him and a guard smuggled them into the British compound where they switched dog tags with the two British soldiers. There, Ray worked lighter duty and continued to hang onto life with every bit of effort he could muster. He prayed daily that Braceford had escaped unharmed.
Seven months after Ray arrived at Stalag IVB the prisoners awakened one night by a thunderous rumble followed by heavy shooting. In the early morning light they saw allied Russian soldiers descending upon the camp with horses, wagons and tanks as German guards fled their posts. Shouts of excitement filled the air in at least thirteen different languages as Russian soldiers unlocked the compounds and liberated the prisoners. The prisoners cried and laughed and shouted with what little strength they had left.
More than 3,000 POWs from the American compound walked together to nearby Halle, Germany, with Russian escorts, and then flew to Camp Lucky Strike near Paris, France. From there Ray flew back to America and home. At five feet eight inches tall, he weighed 87 pounds.
Delores both laughed and cried with joy when she saw him. "You look wonderful," she said through tears, assuring Ray that she loved him in spite of his injuries.
"I thought about you every day," Ray said. "Thinking about you gave me the strength to stay alive."
Ray couldn't get enough of looking into Delores' face, and he wondered how he could ever have forgotten how she looked. "Thank you, God," he said once again. Then he reached out his left hand and proudly showed Delores the ring on his finger—the wedding ring that stayed hidden in his sock for almost seven months.