POW poet

Carl Braaten, as he appeared in World War II, was a prisoner of war. The former Owatonna resident spoke little about his experiences as a POW during his lifetime, but he did write poems about those nine months in which he was captive. (Submitted photo)

Carl Braaten found a different way to talk about his experiences in World War II.

Poetry.

Braaten — the late brother-in-law of Gerold W. Johnson of Owatonna — spent the last nine months of the war as a prisoner of war in Prison-Stalag 4A, in Zittau, Germany, a labor camp near what is now the border of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. He was released by the Russians when the war ended.

Johnson brought in the poems to the Owatonna People’s Press for Veterans Day.

“We’ve had the poems in my wife’s scrapbook for years and she’d type them up when his [Braaten’s] wife wrote them out and brought them to my wife,” Johnson said.

Braaten did not talk a lot about his war experiences and instead expressed himself through poetry.

“Braaten wrote the poems after his POW experience. He would have dreams and then wake up in the morning with the poems in his head. He had poems about his family, too,” Johnson said.

The poems Johnson brought in focus on Braaten’s war experience specifically; fighting the Germans, when and how he was captured, starvation, the cold winter, the forced marches and working on railroad tracks for the Nazis.

“When he was released he weighed 110 to 120 pounds and didn’t think about home, just something to eat,” said Johnson. “Some [of Braaten’s poems] are pretty intense and they tell you exactly what he lived through.”

After the war, Braaten lived in Owatonna briefly, then Northfield and ended up in Osceola, Wisconsin.

Braaten was part of the 106th Infantry Army division, which is famous in part because of Kurt Vonnegut and his novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

According to a review by A. Churchill of “Decision of St. Vith” by Charles Whiting, the 106th was also significant because of what the soldiers did. They were the youngest Allied division to come into the war and had limited experience, yet they were thrown into what was Hitler’s last offensive attempt to stop the Allies.

MilSpec Tours calls it “America’s greatest ever land battle.” MilSpec Tours has done a 106th Infantry Division Battlefield Tour in the past and describes some of the same events as Braaten experienced according to his poems, such as the infantry’s lack of experience, how attempts to supply the division by air was unsuccessful and their captivity.

Though what division Braaten was in specifically is unknown, Braaten was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, according to one of his poems. He says, “We had over four hundred men/ Lying dead in the snow,/ Twelve hundred sixty wounded/ With no place to go…The Colonel said we have no food/ Our ammunitions running low,/ We have all these wounded men/ To a hospital they must go./ So we laid our weapons in the snow/ And raised our arms up high,/ We dreaded the thought of surrender/ But the Colonel had told us why.”

Reach Editorial Assistant Samantha Schwanke at 507-444-2379.

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