Occasionally we are blessed to meet individuals who glow with a sense of strength and dignity that surpasses everything surrounding them. In their stature, we see hardships that have been overcome and battles that have been won, closely intermingled with the sweet times that made them sing. In the eyes of these individuals we find the power to stare down our demons because we know that those same irises saw hell and lived. Not only did they survive Hades, but they triumphed over it in grandiose fashion by loving beyond the pain and living a beautiful life. Perhaps because of the terror and the torment, these individuals are left with a clearer sense of life’s priorities. This clear sense allows them to live their convictions and love fearlessly.
Ova Huff was one of these individuals. His eyes shone with an understanding that humanity can be its own greatest threat. Through his life he had loved a woman and their children profoundly, served his country honorably, and lived to tell the tale of life as a World War II infantryman.
This is Ova’s story…
Ova was born and raised in Rochester, IN and fondly referred to himself as a country boy. His childhood was spent learning how to work hard and live life by a Biblical standard. He spent his days in the typical fashion of most Hoosier boys of the 1930’s and 1940’s, however Ova’s world was rocked the day that he tagged along with his friends to Logansport, IN to attend a dance. The dance was meant to pass the time, however at this dance a special Italian girl named Mary made time stand still for Ova. The moment his eyes landed on her he knew his life would be spent by her side.
Jobs were scarce at the time, yet Ova managed to find work on the railroad as a laborer. It wasn’t glamourous work, but it paid the bills. His life was off to an exciting start. However, it wasn’t long before the echo of war whistled across the Indiana countryside. In the midst of the calm, a missive of gun-fire and carnage was delivered in a neatly pressed envelope marked, “Draft Notice”.
The year was 1942, Ova was going to war. When asked about what his feelings were about being drafted he chuckled and sighed, “I wanted to go and hide somewhere.” Yet, cowardice was not part of this country boy’s makeup and it wasn’t long before he kissed his loved ones goodbye and headed to boot camp.
Ova found himself in unfamiliar territory when he arrived in Salina, Kansas for boot camp at Camp Phillips. He was assigned to a newly formed division, 94th Division 1st Battalion Company B, and they began to travel around the United States. Their first stop was Tennessee, followed by Mississippi, and then New Jersey before they received the announcement that they would soon be sent to England. Ova recalled with amusement that his superiors were barely qualified to lead the men they were commanding. Despite this lack in training, each man knew this was the time to rise to the challenge or they would sink into defeat.
Nearly as soon as Ova arrived in England, he was sent into some of the hardest hit warzones. This initiation into the theater of war was a stark baptism of blood and fire for the nineteen-year-old G.I. who longed to be home in the familiar arms of his love. Instead he was surrounded by hate and strangers.
His next assignment was in France and he recalled, decades later, how the German army had taken a twisted delight in torching civilian’s homes to the ground. The homes were stone houses with straw roofs and the German army would light the straw roof on fire just to watch it burn. He spent nearly a year; winter, spring, summer, and fall, in France fighting for his life, fighting for the world. During his time in France he was shot twice in his arm, however this wounds barely phased the attendants at the field hospital. They bandaged him up, cleaned his arm, and sent him right back to the position he had held prior to the injuries.
The daily fighting, accompanied by his injuries, tested the mettle of the man, yet Ova’s greatest challenge was still to come. His company was informed of three American soldiers who had been taken prisoner. They knew that they must rescue the men. The group of nine soldiers strapped themselves down with as much ammunition as they could carry and firearms. They faced the German army with a courage and tenacity that carried them through an intense firefight. Although they fought hard, and they rescued their comrades, they were forced to surrender upon the discovery that they had used every piece of ammunition trying to get to the men.
The group of twelve men were taken as prisoners by the Nazi army and so began the long march across the France countryside. They walked approximately 300 miles from the point of their capture to the border where they were then placed into cattle cars. As the cattle cars clicked and clacked down the rails of war torn Germany one can’t help but think of the young G.I. and his remembrance of working on American railroads before this brutal experience became his new reality. One can imagine the heartbreak that coursed through his veins and buried deep in his gut at the memory of being able to leave the rails behind after a long day’s work and return home to simpler times. These rails, although made of the same unyielding steel would not return him to his love and his life, for these rails carried him deeper into the belly of the beast. These rails, with their cattle cars crammed full of men standing pressed tightly together, were the rails of death.
After three days of standing, pressed into hard wooden walls and sweltering bodies, they arrived at a farm called Camp Stellenoid 11B. There were no bunks for the men to collapse onto in exhaustion, nor were there refreshments or water to cool their hot tongues. The Nazi’s had not given them even a sip on the ride to the camp and now in the stifling confines of the camp men began to die.
They were forced to stand at attention for hours, as they stood they watched as men they had fought beside and laughed with, began to fall dead in front of them. The unmoved officers would point out those closest to the soldiers and demand that they carry their dead friend to a massive grave just outside of the camp, cover them with lime, and simply move on. The warfare had now entered a whole new realm, the fight was no longer against guns and knives, the war was now against thoughts and emotions.
The prisoners were fed once a day a meal of horse meat and hot water, however any infraction could warrant starvation for the entire camp. While they starved, their torturers dined well and partied extravagantly in full view of the dying men. The barn where the men lived was crammed with 300 men who began to grow a sense of comradery in the midst of their misery. This sense of comradery was the only thing that kept them going from day to day as they gathered at night and discussed what they would do upon returning home. In fact, this comradery was so strong that Ova’s closest life-long friend, Melvin Darlage, was a fellow P.O.W. he had met while in the camp. Melvin and Ova’s friendship carried them through the best and worst years of their lives upon their return home. When he was later describing Melvin, Ova referred to him as his brother and wistfully added that he had grown so close that they had become a part of one another. For nine months, Ova and Melvin existed in the horror of the camp, each dreaming of home and the loved ones they would see once they arrived. Ova talked of Mary, who was now his wife and Melvin shed countless tears over the fact that he wasn’t there to watch his baby grow.
Early one morning, Ova went to the latrine in the back of the camp, however he would not arrive at his destination. As he looked over the hill, his eyes beheld a massive column of tanks, flying the British flag, cresting the hill and moving straight for the camp. He let out a jubilant holler that alerted the captors and the captured alike. General Montgomery had come to liberate them!
The Nazi army immediately scattered, leaving the camp open and the prisoners free. The British army wasted no time in ministering to the men, cleaning and feeding them, and then interviewing them in order to understand the true scope of the trauma experienced. Out of the twelve men captured that fateful day, only six survived.
Ova was sent to England and for the first time in 9 months he was able to contact Mary and let her know that he was alive and would be returning home. Once his health was stabilized, he was set home for three months to recuperate under the tender care of his love’s watchful eye. He was then sent to Miami, Florida for a two-month long period of rehabilitation before he was honorably discharged in New Jersey.
Upon his return to Logansport, he returned to his job at the railroad. However, his heart was no longer in the rails. A friend suggested that he apply for an electrical apprenticeship, which he did, and he became an electrician.
Ova and Mary were blessed with two children; a girl and a boy, who were the light of their lives. With heartbreak and mourning, he buried Mary in 2016, after a long and happy life together. He fondly recalled that she was a master of nearly everything she tried and that her friend chicken and spaghetti and meatballs were two of the great loves of his life. On the long days in the dark camp when hunger was his constant companion it was the thought of her fried chicken and loving arms that nursed him through.
When asked how he survived, he was quick to credit his faith and commented, “Faith gives you a little backbone.”
After 96 years of living, Ova’s suggestion to younger generations is to “Think and use your head.”
“If people would stop and think, that would be the most important thing in the world.”