Finding an ex-POW who saved my uncle

by Angela Duane
Holy Names Academy, Seattle – Class of 1986

Angela Duane
Angela Duane

It all started with a letter—one of many that had sat in a box for years, stored in my father’s garage. We discovered them upon his death a few years back, and I’d taken some time to read through and sort them according to a decade. Still, I had missed something.

This summer, I perused the “1940s” stack, again, as I was doing some writing about our family and searching for clarity on the events surrounding my Uncle John’s experience abroad as an army soldier during WWII.

Uncle John Duane
Uncle John Duane

Uncle John Duane was injured, captured, and spent months in a German prison camp—a story that holds a sacred place in my family history/lore. Still, the tidbits shared by older cousins and my father were often fuzzy in detail or sometimes conflicting and filled with gaps. —Not surprising, as the events of 1944-1945 had been a painful experience for my uncle. He rarely spoke of the war, so details were few and far between.

But back to the letters. I squinted at one of the yellow messages scrawled in my grandmother’s writing, postmarked August of 1945. It was addressed to my Uncle John, a couple of months after he’d been liberated and made his way back to Seattle from Germany.

Toward the bottom of the letter, my grandmother wrote:

“A Murele Ipsen called. He was one of the boys who carried you out of there when you collapsed. —Said you were in a bad way, bleeding from your nose and mouth. Said he saw you in the stalag! He was from Georgetown.” [Murele Ipsen, CHS class of 1943.]

I was stunned. A name. I had stumbled upon an actual name of someone who was witness to that which had been such a profound and altering experience for my uncle; a name of someone who may have had a major hand in shaping my own personal trajectory.

So, I started googling. I found census information, draft card information, and a few random links that showed old addresses in Kent and Burien—but I found no obituary or death date.

Murele Ipsen
Murele Ipsen

Was Murele Ipsen still alive? It was possible. He’d be 95, but… it was possible. I continued to comb through search results and ended up clicking on a Cleveland Alumni Newsletter article. Murele’s sister Leona was mentioned, along with a reference to Murele’s capture in WWII!

I immediately email John Barton who had written the piece and held my breath. Would he respond? Would he think I was some sort of solicitor or weirdo trying to take advantage of an older veteran? Miraculously, John Barton emailed me back and agreed to reach out to Murele or his family if I drafted a letter of intention.

No problem! But… what was I to tell him? That I was still searching for closure, 31 years after Uncle John’s death? That I still wanted answers; clarity; insight into the life of my mysterious but beloved godfather?

Despite the altering experience of war, John Duane had been a kind, gentle, goofy soul—and he always watched out for me. He ready to me; babysat me; took me too/from school; lifted me up to see into Grandma’s cabinets; gave me my first calculator, desk, nail polish, desk lamp, first camera—the man even bought all of my Holy Names candy bars so I wouldn’t have to stand int he cold to help our school raise money.

Uncle John and young Angela
Uncle John and young Angela

In a way, Uncle John also saved my life. I was a “good girl,” but my teen years were fraught with turbulence as I battled with my parents in a strict Catholic household. We were constantly at loggerheads, and it made for a rather stressful adolescence. Let’s just say my stuff ended up on the porch (along with myself!) on more than one occasion. After high school, I started college and then took a break about a couple of years in. Money was running short, and tensions were only worsening at home which didn’t allow for focus. I found work in a restaurant but was starting to turn toward not-so-nice people for comfort and support, heading down potentially dangerous paths. Then Uncle John died. It was a horrible shock that just about did me in. —But my godfather had been looking out for me ’til the very end. In a final selfless and generous act, he left me a college fund. I was able to finish school, move out, and I found some much-needed stability. Meanwhile, my family finally found some peace. I mean, I loved my parents, but sometimes people get along better when they don’t live together!

Well, I wrote to John Barton and told him all of the above, explaining that I wanted to thank Murele Ipsen for helping my uncle; a man who had such a major impact on my life. But I was also hoping that maybe Murele could shed some light on what, exactly, happened in Germany during the war.

Feelings of guilt and excitement clashed in my brain. Maybe my uncle wouldn’t want me stirring all of this up. Maybe I should just let it rest. Maybe it was time to accept that you just don’t get clarity of “closure” on everything in life. —I decided to leave it up to fate.

The wonderful John Barton Delivered my letter to Murele’s house in person (imagine—Murele’s place is just a short distance from him!). However, his stepson, Dale Leyde, quickly clued us in on a sad situation. Murele suffered a stroke last year, and his family doesn’t anticipate that he’ll live much longer.

Murele and stepson Dale Leyde
Murele and stepson Dale Leyde

Fortunately, stepson Dale was kind enough to share what details he had heard about Murele’s capture. Separated from a larger unit, Murele’s group had surrendered upon a run-in with a German tank and ended up at the stalag listed on my uncle’s records. Hmmm.

My understanding was that my uncle had been wounded and in a hospital before ending up in the prison camp. Had my uncle really been with Murele during his capture? Once again, I was working with another set of conflicting information.

But let’s face it, stories told over time and through the lens of trauma can change.

My brother Peter and I discussed the information we’d been privy to over the years, comparing it to these new details. In an “aha” moment, we agreed that it was possible Murele and Uncle John had been captured in separate incidents but then ended up in the same camp. Then Murele could have helped Uncle John leave the camp when the guards bailed (following German surrender).

I also remembered a cousin had told me that Uncle John said the guards treated him “like a Jew.” My uncle could easily pass for Jewish, so I often wondered if that had affected his prison stay. The worst of it for Murele had been a head-butting with a rifle when he reached for a cabbage off a train rolling by. Perhaps my uncle faced more routine beatings??? It was possible that he could have been recently roughed up and was not in good shape the day they all “walked out.” —And the only reason he may have been able to actually/physically leave that place was because of Murele’s kindness and integrity.

Then… enter another clue from stepson Dale: He said that en route to the allied territory, Murele’s crew happened upon a bombed-out camera store. Murele found a camera and some film, then took a few pictures… one of which included a wagon. Amazing. All of the stories my own family had discussed over the years involved a “wagon.”

It was coming together: The camp… liberated. Everyone is leaving. Murele and perhaps a couple of other Seattle or west-coast kids stick together as they make their way out. Murele sees a bloodied John Duane collapse nearby, and Murele and some “other boys” help carry him through the gates. They snag a wagon en route to the allied territory; perhaps they take turns pushing injured or sick comrades who could now ride versus walk. Then they stop at what was left of the camera store, scavenge a camera or two and snap some pix before continuing on their way. —Was that exactly what happened? We’ll never know. But I think that’s as close as it’s ever gonna get.

Murele and his wife Rosemary
Murele and his wife Rosemary

Dale Leyde told me he was glad I had such a good uncle in my life, and I told him I was glad he had such a good father in his life. It was a very nice conversation—he even said he’d try to dig up the aforementioned photos!

In the meantime, I am happy to have experienced such a beautiful (and almost impossible!) “connection in the time of Covid.” Connection across generations, history, time, and place. After speaking with John Barton, I cried for an hour as he reminded me so much of my father.

I felt like I’d made a new friend but that I was also given a gift of time travel to spend a few minutes with my “dad” again. After speaking with Dale, I felt a kinship in having been cared for by men of such special character and decency—and I also started to feel more at peace with my quest. I think that Uncle John would understand that my search for answers was just another way of staying connected to someone who had loved me so much and who had given me so much. Someone who I will miss forever.

But… the journey wasn’t quite over! A couple of nights ago, I stumbled upon an old email with a link to online POW records I’d found several years ago. I brought up my uncle’s record, and then I backtracked to the search tool. I held my breath and typed in Murele’s name. Success!

I compared the records side by side but could not cross-check their unit numbers as Murele’s was blank. Arrrgh! Then I paused. “Theatres” were listed for both men (a theatre is the area of capture). And… Uncle John had been captured in Holland; Murele had been captured in Germany. I scrolled down further, and… the same prison camp was listed for both. Wow.

So the theory about Murele carrying my uncle out of the camp was probably correct, after all.

In closing, I can’t say for sure that my “version” of such a long-ago chapter is totally accurate, but I’m fairly certain that my uncle made it out of that place because Murele Ipsen took the time to be a decent human being. —Because Murele Ipsen had been a soldier, and a gentleman.

Summer is over; fall is around the corner. The days continue to move forward, and Mr. Ipsen may not have much time left in this world. But I choose to believe that John Duane will be ready and waiting to help him through the gates of the next one. Thank you, Mr. Murele Ipsen, for taking care of my uncle and making it possible for him to return home to us. You saved his life, and because of that, you saved mine. Finally, a special thank you to John Barton for joining me on this journey.

 

Follow up post to this one: https://www.clevelandalumsea.org/finding-an-ex-pow-part-2/

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