HAWLEY — Dozens and dozens of people packed the sanctuary of the little stone church — there to honor the late Staff Sgt. Carl B. McDonald.
Their voices sang out “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as they held their hands over their hearts.
It was a beautiful example of small-town life in the best possible way.
McDonald — whose career as a teacher, coach and principal included stints in Hawley, Stamford, Elmdale and Lueders-Avoca — received a posthumous Prisoner of War medal for his internment in Wauwilermoos Camp in Switzerland.
Col. Steven Beasley, Dyess Air Force Base 7th Bomb Wing vice commander, presented the medal to Herschel McDonald, the staff sergeant’s son.
Herschel McDonald said the turnout for the ceremony was overwhelming.
“So many people here,” he said. “Such respect 20 years after he was gone.” When his father died in 1993, hundreds of people showed up for the service, McDonald said. Hawley’s population at that time was 432.
“This little church held 700 people,” McDonald remembered. “You couldn’t stir them with a stick.”
The prisoners of Wauwilermoos did not receive treatment as outlined in the Geneva Convention. McDonald spent about six months in the camp.
The men were fed stale bread and water with chunks of potatoes, said Zane Versyp, Carl McDonald’s grandson, who spent years researching his grandfather’s service and internment. The camp administrators crammed the prisoners into overloaded barracks where they slept on lice-infested straw.
“We learned a lot we didn’t know,” Versyp said of his research. “We found out he did two missions — late on June 5th and early June 6 — on D-Day.”
Versyp said his grandfather was a small man, which made him a perfect fit as a tailgunner on an Army air corps B-24. His grandfather didn’t talk much about his time in the military.
On June 28, 1944, on a bombing mission to Germany, his plane suffered mechanical problems but managed to land in Switzerland, where the crew was detained by the Swiss Army according to international law.
Carl McDonald and a fellow soldier escaped the prison by clinging to the bottom of a train. They eventually made their way to France and met up with French resistance fighters. But McDonald’s journey wasn’t over.
“He walked from Switzerland to Spain,” Versyp said. “He walked on foot over the Pyrenees Mountains.”
The Prisoner of War medal had been withheld from the 143 men who were held in Wauwilermoos because Switzerland was not considered a hostile country.
In 2013, an amendment to a defense appropriations bill changed the wording on the requirements for the POW medal and the men at Wauwilermoos were finally recognized for their hardships.
“We had the option to go to (Washington) D.C. for the medal presentation ceremony,” said Carla Hooper, Carl McDonald’s daughter. “We chose to do it here in his hometown so more people could attend.”
Another daughter, Melda Knapp, said the family received a lot of love from the people who came to pay tribute to her father.
“He was a war hero,” she said. “But he was a bigger hero here, as a teacher and coach, and even more as a daddy,”