A Kerrville man was reunited with a piece of WWII history Friday. His father’s wedding ring, recovered nearly 75 years after it vanished in a German prisoner of war camp, made its way home.
Wayne Gotke, 72, a longtime federal law enforcement officer, never got to know his father, an American B-24D navigator and bombardier during World War II. His parents divorced when he was a baby, then built their lives far apart.
"I've, from time to time, thought about it,” Gotke said. “But it's not like I had years as a kid of remembering him and talking with him and whatnot. That was not there."
But as an amateur World War II historian, Gotke has nonetheless built an understanding of his father’s trajectory, from his roots in San Antonio until his death in 1979.
As a young man, Gotke’s father, also named Wayne, attended Alamo Heights High School and then Saint Mary’s University, where he studied mathematics. By 1940, the country was readying for war. The elder Gotke married in 1942, and was drawn into service with the U.S. Army Air Forces shortly afterward.
“Like every young guy at that time, that's what you did,” Gotke explained. “Your country needs you — it calls — and he went. They started bombing Germany proper in January, 1943, just a couple of months after they actively began the war.”
That same year, the elder Gotke’s plane was shot down by German fighters. He survived but was captured and taken to Stalag Luft III, a prisoner of war camp run by the Luftwaffe, located in what is now western Poland.
There, he remained imprisoned for 26 months, during which he made several unsuccessful escape attempts. He also lost the gold wedding ring on his finger, though the Luftwaffe normally did not interfere with prisoners’ personal belongings.
“They took one of your two dog tags, and maybe some documentation,” his son said. “But, in general, most of your personals, they didn't bother. And they didn’t bother wedding rings.”
Fast forward three-quarters of a century: Parts of Stalag Luft III have been converted into a museum. Volunteers there regularly uncover artifacts, though rarely anything traceable to specific POWs. However, while excavating an area of the barracks, they struck gold.
“They were digging around when they unearthed a long sink where men could shave,” the younger Gotke said. “It was partially in the ground. One of the fellows, I guess, thought, ‘I wonder what's in the trap?’ He opened up that pipe and started knocking. Seventy-five years of mud and pine needles came out, along with a metal ring.”
Under the watchful eye of museum director Marek Lazarz, staffers cleaned it off and matched its inscription against POW records. Then they began the process of tracking down Wayne Gotke’s son, working in tandem with Dallas-based historical researchers Michael Eberhardt and Marilyn Walton, whose own father was imprisoned at Stalag Luft III.
Gotke remembers getting the phone call from Walton in October. Though he did not know the ring had been lost, he did remember that his mother had had it engraved.
“She said, ‘I believe we've found your wedding ring.’ And I said, ‘Well, if it says Anne to Wayne, August of 1942, you have.’ She said, ‘Oh my god, that's exactly what it says. It's engraved inside it.’
“It was quite a blast from the past for me, for something like that to come up after so many years.”
Wayne Gotke accepted his father’s ring at a ceremony at the Kerr County War Memorial. It wasn’t quite closure, he said, but a rare invitation into his father’s life.
Carson Frame can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @carson_frame