SARATOGA SPRINGS — On this Father’s Day, Ken Evans, like all Americans, is reflecting on his father. But then, that’s what he has been doing for years.
It’s ironic: Ken came to know his father better a decade after the old man had died. He didn’t come to know him completely until he stood in a crumbling POW camp in Germany and walked among the trees in the Ardennes and along the beaches of Normandy in France.
How much of our fathers do any of us really know? Fathers had this other life before their children came along. Don Evans was a BYU tennis player, an all-state quarterback at Lehi High School and a fighter pilot who crammed a lifetime of experiences into the two decades before Ken was born. Don went to the war a boy; he came home a man, made older than his years by the horrors he saw and the hardships he endured.
After his father passed away, the son set out to better know the man he idolized, the man with whom he rode horses, fished and hunted. Now 69, Ken has completed a manuscript about his father’s life that he hopes to have published. It is a product of nearly five years of work and a testament to the tie between a father and son and one man’s need to know his father.
His search for his father’s essence drew him deep into his world. As Ken likes to say of his obsessive effort: “I wandered into the Ardennes forest and couldn’t find my way out.”
Don Evans, like many from the “greatest generation,” rarely talked about himself, and he talked even less about the war. So many people knew him, but didn’t know him. They knew him as a kind and gentle man, the stake president over the local LDS wards, a businessman and devoted family man.
But many never knew he had lived another life — that he had flown combat missions in a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber in the Battle of the Bulge; that he had been shot down behind enemy lines and made a miraculous bailout; that he literally stood over his own grave; that he endured a cold, famished march across Germany; that he survived a German prison camp.
He came home from the war and got on with his life. He returned to his devoted wife, Laura Jeanne, whose memory had sustained him through his trials. He came home and raised four children with Laura Jeanne in Orem and went to work as an entrepreneur who, among other things, owned a small chain of grocery stores.
He left the war behind, or so he thought. He would not talk about it. He avoided reunions and most communication with his pals from the old 368th Fighter Group, fearing it would open old wounds. For a time he had a model of a P-47 on the living room mantel, but when Ken got older and started asking questions, the model disappeared.
Don grew silent whenever he was asked about the war.
During a weak moment, he agreed to see “The Battle of the Bulge” movie with his wife in December 1965. Partway through the movie, Laura Jeanne stole a glance at her husband, and in the dark of the theater she could see that he was sweating and struggling to breathe. She whispered to him that the movie was bothering her and could they leave, and so they did. This was 21 years after the war.
During the war years he had promised in his letters that he would take Laura Jeanne to the places he had seen in Europe during the war. He did take her to Europe eventually, but he refused to visit any of the battlegrounds or the POW camp. He had no interest in dredging up those memories.
Christmas Eve ’44
It wasn’t until he was near the end of his life, while struggling with heart problems, that Don faced his demons briefly before shutting them out again. On Christmas Eve 1996, he shared his own version of “The Night Before Christmas” as his family gathered around him near the fireplace.
He told of the long cold Christmas Eve of 1944 that he spent leaning against a pine tree in the Ardennes, hiding from German troops after his plane had been shot down over the Battle of the Bulge.
The family grew quiet and tearful as he recounted how he survived bailing out of the plane from less than 200 feet above the forest while traveling 400 mph — that was supposed to be impossible because there wasn’t enough altitude to allow his chute time to open. He told how he had inverted his plane, of all things, to gain altitude and then, flying upside down, he struggled against the G forces to stand up and throw himself clear of the plane. He recounted that with just one swing of his parachute, he struck the ground — that’s how close he had cut it.
He recounted his capture the next morning and how he watched as two SS soldiers dug his grave in the frozen ground as other German captors watched. They weren’t taking many pilots as prisoners at that stage of the war, but somehow, miraculously, Don began speaking German, which was strange because he didn’t know the language.
Whatever he said caused the soldiers to take him immediately to the SS officer who was in charge. They both spoke enough French to converse — in his spare time Don had been memorizing French phrases — and Don was granted a stay of execution.
It wasn’t until the end of his story — when Don told his family that all he had prayed for was to return to his wife again and how grateful he was to have done so — that the old man teared up.
Don Evans died exactly three years later — Christmas Eve 1999 — and took most of his war remembrances and an unshared part of himself with him to his grave.
“And they would have stayed there if it weren’t for my mother,” Ken said.
Shortly after Laura Jeanne died in 2011, Ken and his sister Sue discovered a stash of more than 300 letters that Don had written to their mother during the war, along with a couple of notebooks in which he had recorded experiences and details he had never mentioned. Don was a prolific letter writer; even though most were love letters, they also provided a journal of his life. He began writing to Laura Jeanne after leaving home for boot camp, while she was still in high school, and continued for almost four years, to the end of the war.
“I could see him mature and change through the letters,” said Ken.
Ken was intrigued by his father’s other life, and the more he learned the more his respect and admiration grew. He decided that he could honor his father and his legacy in a lasting and meaningful way by telling his story.
“Maybe it was because I have such fond memories of my father,” he said. “He was such a good man. He was easy to get to know and congenial, and yet in other ways he was complex and hard to know.”
To write his father’s story, Ken studied for two years. He read dozens of books to understand the battles in which his father had fought. He read and reread those 300-plus letters and studied his mother’s scrapbooks. He talked to his father’s friends and military comrades. He studied talks his father had given in church in which he had revealed glimpses of his past.
And then he began writing. He spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on the project over the course of almost five years. He did most of his work late at night because he worked long hours as a partner in a CPA firm. The only thing that slowed his project was his health. He was hospitalized three times with heart problems, but after each episode he returned to his father’s work.
“I was driven to learn more about my dad and how he became the man he became,” he says. “And then once I discovered as much as anyone could, I wanted to share that with my children, siblings and friends. I was afraid his story would be lost. I wanted to preserve his legacy, and maybe it was my way to show my love and appreciation.”
After Ken finished the manuscript in the spring and began sharing it with others, they encouraged him to publish it as a book for the public at large. But there was one more thing Ken needed to do to put the finishing touches on the project. He had to go to Europe to walk where his father had walked.
Ken, accompanied by his wife, Sandy, and Sue, flew to England, where Don had arrived in 1944 after six days at sea aboard the Queen Elizabeth in the company of 15,000 soldiers. Don flew training missions in England for three weeks and then was sent to the continent.
In France, Ken strolled the military cemetery at Normandy and walked the adjacent beaches where the Allies landed 77 years ago. Don arrived there after the initial invasion, waiting for his first glimpse of the enemy. He slept in a tent, or in bunkers when German bombs were dropping from the sky. It would be a month before he flew his first combat mission — he had to wait until fellow pilots died for a slot to open.
From Normandy, Ken, Sue and Sandy moved on to visit Paris, Reims and other places that Don had seen during the war.
“I had underestimated the impact that the locations would have on me,” said Ken. “I had seen them on the internet and Google maps and in books. The first thing that blew me away was the emotion I felt walking on Normandy beach and visiting the graveyard. It was so moving, knowing that that’s where he started.”
It was a month before Don got his first combat mission. The 368th was assigned to pave the way for Patton’s 3rd Army as it moved east. The P-47s were armed with bombs, rockets and .50-caliber machine guns. They bombed railway stations, railroad yards, trains, munitions plants and targets of opportunity. After their bombs were gone, they strafed targets and engaged in dogfights. There were times when Don’s plane was so shot up that he was barely able to land.
Ken can remember only one time when his father described the horrors of his war experience. It was during a hunting trip with Ken and his friends in 1969. One of Don’s friends asked him to describe what it had been like as a WWII pilot. Don grew silent and pushed one of the logs around in the fire for several long moments before he answered.
The bombing missions were impersonal, he said finally. He was too high in the sky to see the damage to human beings. But then everything changed at Aachen, the first German city the Allies would control. The Allies had it surrounded and ordered the Germans to surrender. Hitler ordered his troops to fight on. The 368th was dispatched to destroy it on Oct. 11, 1944, Don’s fifth combat mission.
“It was a bloodbath,” Don told the boys as he stared somberly into the fire. It was the first time he strafed troops as they ran for cover. He could see their faces. He could see the panic in their faces.
“He never forgot it,” said Ken. “It affected him deeply. It was the only time I heard him talk about anything like that.”
By the time the Battle of the Bulge arrived, Don was a battled-tested pilot who had completed 23 combat missions. And then his plane was struck by anti-aircraft fire over the Battle of the Bulge just as he pulled up and away from strafing a German Tiger tank. His engine burst into flames and the cockpit filled with smoke. He had seconds to react and he was too low for his parachute to deploy.
In a counterintuitive maneuver, he rolled his plane upside down and then he was out of the cockpit and falling. There wasn’t time to count to three, as he had been instructed; instead, he followed what he called “a prompting” to pull his rip cord as fast as he could. As soon as the parachute jolted open he struck the snowy hillside.
Earlier this month, 73 years after his father had been shot out of the sky, Ken arrived in Bastogne, Belgium, and hired a guide to help him find the place where his father’s plane had crashed. He had the six-digit latitude and longitude coordinates, as originally reported by Don’s flight leader, pinpointing the site to within a 100-yard radius. It was about a mile northeast of Freyneux.
While hiking to the crash site, Ken’s party encountered a farmer sitting behind an ancient tractor. The guide asked the farmer if he knew anything about the crash site. To their surprise, he knew its location. He was 90 years old and had lived there his entire life. He had heard about the crash. The party followed the old man’s directions and found what they believe was the crash site.
“The Ardennes consists of rolling hills and valleys covered by dark, dense forests,” said Ken. “It was an eerie feeling being there, almost spooky. With pine trees all over the side hill, it was a miracle that my father parachuted into one of the few small openings in the trees.”
Ken sat under a pine tree, just as his father had, imagining what it had been like for Don, cold and alone and surrounded by German soldiers who were looking for him. He tried to evade the troops in the dark of the night, but they were everywhere. At midnight he gave up and huddled under that tree.
The next day he was captured, and German SS troopers roughed him up, took his coat, hat, gloves and dog tags, and ordered him to dig his grave. That was when the German language formed in his mouth and he talked his way into a reprieve.
Thinking about this, Ken walked back to the car alone, with tears in his eyes.
The next day, Don and other captured GIs began a 12-day march of more than 200 miles to Frankfurt. They were given little to eat and drank water from ditches by the road. The POWs suffered from a severe lack of sleep, dysentery, cruel treatment at the hands of the guards, and Allied bombing.
“Hatred for the Germans entered his heart,” said Ken, but then Don experienced multiple acts of kindness from the German people. During a bombing raid in Koblenz, Don took cover in the rubble of a bombed out apartment complex.
Many years later Don would recount what happened next:
“I was alarmed when an adjacent door opened, afraid that it was someone who might shoot me. Instead, a little old German lady, dressed in several layers of old, tattered clothing, held out her hand and put some hard rock Christmas candy into my hand. Then she looked into my eyes and said, “Gott segne dich” (God bless you).
"Her act of kindness and love of her enemy softened my heart and provided me with one of the greatest teaching moments of my life — one I’ll never forget. And I can’t even begin to explain how good those little pieces of candy tasted.”
They marched on, and when they came to Weitersburg they were surrounded by German citizens. The POWs feared for their lives, but instead of revenge the people brought food to the starving prisoners.
Eventually, the POWs were crammed into unheated railroad cars for a three-day trip to Barth, near the Baltic Sea, in the dead of winter. They were forced to stand the entire way — there was no room to sit — and were given little to eat or drink. They were forced to relieve themselves in buckets. Don was also suffering from a severe sinus infection.
When the POWs reached their destination, they were marched in a snowstorm through the gates of Stalag Luft I. Don was given a thin blanket and a dog tag #7435, then assigned to Room 9, Block 309, North 3 Compound — his home for the next five months.
The POW camp
Ken’s party followed part of the route on which Don had marched toward Frankfurt, trying to see what he would’ve seen and imagine his hardships. Eventually, they drove to Barth to see the POW camp where Don had been imprisoned. They had difficulty finding the camp. No one seemed to know anything about it.
Eventually, they found a woman who had discovered the camp on a bike ride the previous summer, and she agreed to guide them there. They were the only visitors that day, which was understandable. Not much of the camp remains. Ken wandered the grounds for a couple of hours, looking and reflecting. He found old chain-link, barbed wire, and a dozen concrete posts barely visible in the grass that had once supported a building. He climbed a mound of dirt about 15 feet high from which he could survey the camp, which is bordered on one side by trees that conceal the nearby Baltic Sea and on the other side by grass and wildflowers.
Ken found a simple monument in the middle of a grassy area, as well as plaques in English and German that honored those who were interned here. There are also concrete markers identifying the location of each compound.
“As I walked through the North 3 Compound where my father was imprisoned, I was struck by how peaceful and serene it is now, 73 years later,” said Ken. “Suddenly, everything my father had experienced here flooded my mind — bitter cold barracks, near starvation, boredom, depression, poor sanitation, lice, infection, abusive treatment by the guards. In one month, the POWs lost one-third of their weight. I envisioned the machine guns in the guard towers and the fenced compounds surrounded by coils of barbed wire.”
There was one other subtler cruelty that POWs endured. After the Russians freed the prisoners, Don found his records tucked in a file in an office. Inside file #7435 he found all the letters he had written to Laura Jeanne. They were never mailed. He also found two letters from Laura Jeanne.
For Ken, the POW camp was the final stop on his search for his father’s war.
“My father returned home a different man,” Ken Evans said. “Although he did his best to push his horrific war memories from his mind, some remained locked there for the rest of his life. That he was able to emerge from them a kind and gentle man, and a loving husband and father is a testament of his faith, willpower and indomitable spirit.
"As Father’s Day approaches, I think about the great memories I have of him. My father is still my hero.”