“That was now my rosary that I used to ask the Lord to help me,” said Frank Kravetz, resident of a Nuremberg prison camp he called simply the Nazi “hell-hole.”
“My bed stopped shaking … and my anxiety lifted.”
Frank was a POW of Stalag 13-D. Life was scary inside, and among the worst moments were the bombing campaigns by U.S. aircraft soaring overhead. The Nazi camp leaders would head underground into bunkers, leaving American POWs in their barracks as inadvertent targets of their own airmen. Frank feared he might ultimately be killed not by hostile Germans but by friendly Americans seeking his liberation.
One frightening evening Frank gripped both sides of his mattress. He felt some loose string. He broke off about 20 inches and began tying 10 little knots. He created a rosary. He worked the threaded beads and prayed. It helped, especially given that “just existing became what was important.”
A resident of a Nazi camp scratching for survival wasn’t what Frank Kravetz had in mind when he signed up to serve his country in World War II. The kid from smoky East Pittsburgh enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He became a tail-gunner.
Frank’s life took a dramatic turn on November 2, 1944 in a bomb-run over Germany. He crammed into the tail of a B-17, wedged inside a flak jacket. The target was Merseberg, a major industrial area. He flew amid an air armada of 500 heavy bombers, each carrying 18 250-pound “general purpose” bombs.
Frank’s plane came under hot pursuit by German fighters. Frank took them on with a twin .50 caliber machine gun. It was a dogfight, and Frank was badly wounded. His B-17 was filled with holes. The crew had to bail, quickly.
Frank was bleeding profusely and could barely move. His buddies tried to get a parachute on him, but it opened inside the plane. They wrapped it around him, taking care not to cross the cords, and tossed him out. To Frank’s great relief, the chute opened, and Frank said he floated like he was on the wings of angels.
The tranquility halted with a rude thump as Frank hit the ground. German soldiers immediately seized him.
Thus began “hell’s journey,” as Frank dubbed it.
Liberation finally came April 29, 1945, by General George Patton’s Third Army. Frank described the jubilant scene: Thousands of emaciated, ecstatic POWs chanted Patton’s name. Some fell to their knees, overcome with emotion. Patton seized a bullhorn: “Gentlemen— you’re now liberated and under Allied control… We’re going to get you out of here.”
It finally hit Frank and his remaining 125 pounds of flesh: “I’m going home.”
Frank eventually arrived in New York City and hitchhiked all the way to Pittsburgh. He unceremoniously arrived at his folks’ front door—no trumpets, no dramatic music, no parade. He hugged his mom and dad and sat down. He found and married his sweetheart, Anne.
How did he survive? I asked that to Frank several times. With me and especially with younger folks he spoke to, he didn’t shy from sharing his secret: “Pray. It helps.”
As Frank prayed, he promised God he would never complain about anything again if he survived. Our blessings are so bountiful that we need to be grateful, especially compared to deprivations others have faced—like a Nazi prison camp. Frank cited 2nd Corinthians 1:8-10, which speaks of dealing with hardship, despair, and relying not on ourselves but God.
That’s what Frank Kravetz did, right up until his death in August 2015, at age 91, joining his beloved wife of 68 years, who died only four months prior.
To Frank, who was too humble to consider himself a hero, we might say: Well done, faithful servant.
DR. PAUL KENGOR is professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.