There is an old saying, â€œItâ€™s better late than never.â€ After 67 years, World War II veteran Army Staff Sgt. Carlyle Gardner, who served almost three years in the war, was presented a Purple Heart and POW medal by 56th Fighter Wing leadership.
He survived an 86-day, 488-mile forced march that began Feb. 6, 1945, at Stalag Luft IV prisoner-of-war camp near Grosstychew, Poland, and ended in Halle, Germany, April 26, 1945. The long ordeal involved 9,500 men, who for the most part were U. S. Army Air Force Bomber Command NCOs.
Gardnerâ€™s journey in life began Aug. 23, 1923, in Bear River City, Utah, near the Great Salt Lake. After graduating high school in 1941, he moved to Los Angeles and worked for Douglas Aircraft. Gardner enlisted in the Army Air Corps Jan. 22, 1943. After completing basic training, he attended airplane and engine mechanic school in Glendale, Calif., followed by aerial gunnery school, Laredo, Texas.
He was on a bombing mission May 29, 1944, to Leipzig, Germany, in a B-17G. His aircraft was attacked by German fighter planes and crash landed in Ville de Gembloux, Belgium.
Gardner and his crewmates were captured by German soldiers and interrogated. The enlisted crew members were incarcerated in a new prison camp called Stalag Luft IV.
As February 1945 approached, the end was in sight for the Third Reich as Soviets closed in from the east and Americans and British from the west. Developments in the east caused the German high command to evacuate Stalag Luft IV and move the POWs to Germany, thus the long and perilous 86-day march began. They were finally liberated by the Dorset Guards of the British Army May 2, at the Elbe River. Gardner said his weight reduced from 182 pounds when the march began to 118 pounds when he was liberated.
He was honorably discharged with the rank of staff sergeant Oct. 25, 1945.
Much can be learned about Gardnerâ€™s life from what hangs on the walls in his home. They are adorned with certificates, photos and memorabilia of his military and war experience, educational degrees and artwork he has painted throughout the years. There are three framed items that stand out.
â€œAs we were being liberated, a German guard handed me his belt and bayonet and then fled,â€ he said. â€œI saved my eating utensils, which were made of aluminum, and eventually framed them. When the Dorset Guards freed us, I traded a jacket to get some of the items they wore.â€
However, the moment etched in his memory most is when a German soldier opened the door of a barn they were staying in and announced to the prisoners, â€œYour comrades are here.â€
Those comrades were the British, who brought the POWs their freedom and the end to what seemed like an endless march.
Gardner wasted no time in getting his life on a path to success. He married the former Audrey Anderson in 1946 and had three children.
They were married in Minneapolis and while there he earned a fine arts degree and graduated in 1952 from the University of Minnesota. They soon moved to Phoenix where they both worked and retired.
As the decades have passed, certain events and stories have not been forgotten. Audrey said her favorite story from her husbandâ€™s experience involved a couple of older women in a small town.
â€œIt was getting dark on a cold and wet day, and the two women approached me,â€ Gardner said. â€œAs one of them bumped me, she placed a loaf of freshly baked bread into my pocket. If the guards had seen her, she would have been shot. It was the first time I had fresh bread in years. Audrey has remained deeply touched by this experience.â€
The Congressional record of a Senate proceeding commemorating the 50th anniversary of the forced march of American prisoners-of-war from Stalag Luft IV states the following:
â€œThese men who suffered through incredible hardships on the march, yet survived, stand as an everlasting testimonial to the triumph of the American spirit over immeasurable adversity and of the indomitable ability of camaraderie, teamwork and fortitude to overcome brutality, horrible conditions and human suffering.â€
With a twinkle in his eye, Gardner said he reminds his grandson that he has a hell of a tradition to maintain.