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Battle lines: recording wartime experiences

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Capt. Tony B. Lumpkin's experiences during World War II were extraordinary, including not only his capture and escape from the Germans, but also a friendship with celebrated war correspondent Ernie Pyle, a run-in with Red Army commander Marshal Georgy Zhukov and a role in a secret U.S. military operation to smuggle contraband supplies to American war prisoners.

Fortunately, both the captain and Mr. Pyle had an inkling others would take an interest in his tale, and both left written records of his experiences. Most of these anecdotes were written about events just after they happened.


"Tony was headquarters commandant of a certain outfit — a headquarters commandant being a sort of militarized hotel manager," Mr. Pyle wrote in one of his regular columns for Scripps Howard newspapers during the war. His reporting brought tales of ordinary soldiers to the American public and earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1944. He was killed by a sniper in Japan in April 1945.

Mr. Pyle traveled with Capt. Lumpkin's unit in Tunisia in the spring of 1943. Their friendship was cut short when the captain was captured; Mr. Pyle reported what happened: "Just before he disappeared Tony got to going by the nickname of 'Noah' Lumpkin, because he always seemed to pick out such a miserably wet place for a command post."

"Tony Lumpkin needn't have been captured at all if he had been content to stick to his comparatively safe 'hotel managing.' But he wanted to get a crack at the Jerries himself. He was an expert gunner, and he finally talked the commander into letting him take five men and a small gun on wheels and go out and see what he could pick off."

Three days later, on April 1, 1943, Capt. Lumpkin was captured by German troops who had been watching him as he sought a better position on a hilltop.

Elizabeth S. Lumpkin learned of her husband's capture along with the rest of the nation in Mr. Pyle's report.

"She did get a telegram that dad was missing in action but she knew nothing of the circumstances. Then she got this column," said Ann L. Sudduth, Watertown, their daughter.

"That meant a great deal to mother. ... I mean, here she is, my brother was 4 or 5, and I'm 3 and my sister's a baby — well, it was pretty tough. ... But then to hear from Ernie Pyle that he was definitely a prisoner of war and knowing his state of mind, (she knew) he probably could take care of himself."


While held as a POW in occupied Poland, Capt. Lumpkin became manager of the camp's "parcel hut" in a role that earned him a Bronze Star. The facility received and stored packages for prisoners, including much-needed food aid from the Red Cross and soldiers' families.

Camp rations for both the German troops and prisoners were meager, and the Germans sometimes took the food aid. The captain took a strong stance against this, even after a translator he had befriended warned him that camp leaders were irritated and suspicious and were seeking any pretense to execute him.

But the captain had another reason for defending the parcels — some were filled with contraband sent by the U.S. government.

"They sent amazing things." Ms. Sudduth read from information about the long-secret program: "radios and parts, electronics, handguns, shovels, cameras, maps, Reichsmarks ... compasses."

Ms. Sudduth's family still has one of those items, well-hidden on arrival in an aid parcel: "The compass, which you'd need, you know, in an escape, was in the center of a spool of thread, with paper covering over it."


In reflections later added to his war diary, Capt. Lumpkin wrote of the days after his escape from the Germans: "It is hard to put down on paper the true feelings one has when it dawns on him that he is entirely free. I recall even now what a joy it was to realize that I could walk in one direction as long as I wanted to without being curbed by the barbed wire and the guards."



Capt. Lumpkin was grateful to the Polish farm family who sheltered and fed him and several other escaped POWs, but he knew they could not stay long. If discovered by the Germans, the family would almost certainly be shot.

As it happened, the Russians the Americans were searching for began to arrive in the Polish town just after Capt. Lumpkin, in late January 1945. The Americans experienced tense moments when Russian soldiers doubted their escape story, thinking they were German paratroopers dropped behind Russian lines.

The men were taken to a headquarters unit and held until their status could be sorted out. Capt. Lumpkin noted planes, and realized the headquarters must be high-level. At the command post, "we talked to a short, stout, well-built Russian Marshall (sic) whom I take to be Zhukov," he wrote. The head of the Red Army "gave us a lot of words" about other columns of Russian troops "all of them heading for Berlin. He told us that ... as far as he was concerned the war was over."

The commander left the room, and a row broke out among his staff over the status of Capt. Lumpkin's group.

"Finally an officer, whom I took to be Zhukov's Chief of Staff, said, 'These men are Americanski,'" Capt. Lumpkin wrote, "and from then on, we walked on a bed of roses. We drank some vodka. He gave us some cigars, which were delightful; I gave him a tank emblem off my shirt collar and he gave me a red star with scythe and hammer, off his headpiece. Not to be outdone, one of his aides also gave me his headpiece and I gave him the 'US' off my shirt collar. Everything was hotsey totsey, and everyone just a little bit drunk."

Ms. Sudduth's family still has the red star patch, though they have lost the warm goatskin coat that was a gift to Capt. Lumpkin from Marshal Zukhov himself.

A few months later, Capt. Lumpkin landed in Washington, D.C., where he briefed Pentagon officials on what he had learned of the German military during his captivity. Then he took a train to Missouri, where his war diary ends April 7, 1945.

His wife, Betty, Capt. Lumpkin wrote, had traveled from their home in Mexico, Mo., to a St. Louis hotel, "where I saw her for the first time in 35 months."

Tony Lumpkin died in 1978 at age 70.

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About the diary: The family of the late Capt. Tony B. Lumpkin, World War II prisoner of war, retyped his diary and used as a cover photo an image of the captain in his mid-30s taken during the allied invasion of north Africa. His tank bears the name, "Mexico Military Academy," the school in Mexico, Mo., where Capt. Lumpkin taught math in his civilian life. He was captured by the Germans in Tunisia on April 1, 1943, and began his diary the next day with the words, "Captured yesterday."  

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