I never knew much about my father except that he had been a soldier in the British Army in World War II, and he had been a prisoner of war for several years.
In the autumn of 2006, I posted the following on the Internet about my father: “Robert Otterson was buried in the summer of 1949. Rifle shots were fired over the grave and a Union Jack draped the coffin. Later, his older brother would say of the funeral wake that it was a particularly silent affair. The usual attempt to cheer up the mourners with stories and even a little humor were absent.”
Such was the stunned reaction to the death of a man who, at 37 as a professional soldier, had spent more years away from home and family than he had ever wished. Three of those years had seen him incarcerated as a prisoner of war, first in North Africa, then in Italy, and finally in Germany.
After the war, as he walked up the narrow street of a village in Surrey, England, in the late spring of 1945 to be reunited with his family again, he described his feelings as “on top of the world.”
Only four years later he was dead—not the glorious battlefield death of a soldier, but a common road accident that threw him from his motorbike on to a Welsh country road.
For me, his son, it meant growing up without a father. I was nine months old when he died, and I have no memory of him. I felt no particular deprivation during my boyhood, due, no doubt, to a devoted mother and two caring older sisters. But as I grew older, I began to sense the loss. I missed the experience of talking to a father. I missed the things I imagined he would have taught me. I missed his wisdom.
Soon these feelings of loss became the stimulus for me to learn all I could about my father’s life. Over the years, I have re-created, from interviews, letters, and journals, the things I could not learn firsthand. I share it now with his children, 10 grandchildren, and 23 great-grandchildren, with the hope that they will come to know and appreciate this remarkable man.
I never knew whether there was any trace of the German prison camp where my father spent the last months of World War II. During the summer of 2006, however, my wife and I, with a daughter and son-in-law, found the huge flat field where the camp used to stand in what used to be East Germany, near Muhlberg on the Elbe River.
The camp was eventually liberated by the Russians, but Russian military authorities still wouldn’t let the Allied soldiers leave. So my father and a friend slipped out of camp, trekking across fields and streams toward the American lines 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the west.
Using my dad’s prison camp journal, we learned that my dad and his friend had spent that night in a barn with German refugees to avoid the Russian patrols. Finally they reached the bridge over the Mulde river. The American front lines were on the other side. My father described his feelings as he walked over that bridge and shook hands with the American soldiers. He wrote that for the first time in years, he felt “really free.”
We traced the route he took as closely as we could, and I walked across that same bridge over the Mulde, trying to imagine how he felt in 1945. I sent our American son-in-law ahead so I could shake hands with an American on the other side as my father had done. Then I stood on the bank of the river with the bridge in the background and read from my father’s journal as my daughter recorded it on a digital video recorder. That is now posted on our family Web site in the hope that it will help turn the hearts of my children and grandchildren to their fathers.
What if I hadn’t been able to travel to Germany? I would still have had the power of the Internet available to me.
From the Web site for the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands, I found a picture of the gates to the camp known as Stalag IV B—the German prison camp where my father finished out the war.
From an Italian naval Web site, I found a picture of the Ugo Foscolo—the prison ship that carried my father across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy for three miserable days. Many of the men had dysentery. There was no proper sanitation. They slept below decks on metal floors—wretched, hungry souls who didn’t know if they would survive. My father described his place on the ship, below the aft hatch. When I found a site online for model shipbuilding that had a model of the Ugo Foscolo, I could clearly see in the picture of the model the hatch my dad described.
When the prisoners finally disembarked, they faced a three-mile (five-kilometer) march—an eternity it seemed to some of them—to their new camp near Bari on the Adriatic coast.
My father wrote of their arrival: “As we passed through the city, the doors and windows of every house were filled with curious spectators. There were giggling girls, mocking youths, grave-faced men, and an old lady, who watched while tears ran down her furrowed cheeks. Truly, our appearance was more to be pitied than laughed at, but ragged, unkempt, dirty, and half-starved as we were, we held our heads erect, got into step, and gazed defiantly back at the mocking faces, while the war songs of 25 years ago burst from our lips and echoed through the streets.”
So why is this important? Because when we stand in the baptismal font of a temple, as I did in New Zealand in 1970 for my father, the experience is immeasurably richer. This is also true as I complete any temple work for someone whose life I have studied. And even if all I can find on the Internet is a description of the time and place in which an ancestor lived—and that is the case for most of them—it still helps me make a connection. Family history for me now is not just names and dates, but flesh and blood experiences to be passed on—stories to bind and strengthen families. Could the Lord also have had this in mind when he said the hearts of the children would be turned to their fathers?
May your hearts truly turn to those whose sacrifices have helped you become who you are. May you feel the reality of the Spirit of Elijah. May you use your natural gifts, talents and experience to help capture the stories that make your families special, and that will help bind your children and your children’s children through those common experiences.