Escape & capture: Firefighter started service to community at young age

By Harry McCawley

It certainly would have been understandable had Jack McKay followed in his father’s footsteps in the choice of a career. In a way he did.

His father, Cuba McKay, chose public service to occupy most of his working hours. He was an officer on the Columbus Police Department for 33 years, nine of them as chief.

Jack took a somewhat different route. He became a firefighter, serving in various capacities on the Columbus Fire Department for 42 years. During four of those years, 1980 to 1984, he was fire chief. He was so identified with his work that following his death in 2004, the department’s 1937 Stutz pumper truck served as his hearse en route to the cemetery.

I’m not sure why Jack chose firefighting because he certainly had the background to become a cop, demonstrating that when he was in the third grade at Jefferson School. He helped capture a German prisoner of war who had escaped from an internment compound at Camp Atterbury near Edinburgh. The Evening Republican, now The Republic, went so far as to dub him a “Junior G-Man” in a Page One headline on May 7, 1945.

The story of the capture is unusual in a number of ways to 21st century readers, not the least of which would be the involvement of an 8-year-old Columbus child in the incident.

For a growing number of others, especially to those who were born and raised elsewhere in the wake of the accomplishments of the “Greatest Generation,” it brings to light a period in American history when thousands of neighbors of Bartholomew County residents were housed a few miles away after having fought for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in World War II.

Unlike many notorious prisoner of war camps at other times and in many countries (including Georgia’s Andersonville compound in the American Civil War), life at Camp Atterbury for captured Germans and Italians proved to be a pleasant interlude from the atrocities of war.

Atterbury, which had opened in 1942, was designated as a permanent internment center for Indiana on June 6, 1943. By the end of its first month it housed 767 Italian POWS. Three months later the number of internees had grown to 3,000. By war’s end there had been between 12,000 to 15,000 internees at nine POW camps in Indiana, most of them at Camp Atterbury.

Escapes were rare, in great part because those seeking freedom had such great distances and an ocean separating them from their homeland. But many of the prisoners saw little need to get away.

In the last years of the war things were going badly for the countries of their birth. Allied bombing raids had destroyed many of their cities and towns, and a return to service in their army would likely have been under duress. On the other hand, life in POW camps like those at Camp Atterbury was a downright pleasant escape from war.

According to a 1944 story in the Franklin Evening Star, there were ample leisure time activities available on three soccer fields, six volleyball courts, one boxing ring, three boccie fields and an outdoor gym.

Prisoners could even work and earn wages outside the camp on area farms and a handful of industries. The Morgan Packing Co., which sold cans of homegrown vegetables, employed hundreds of POWS, many at a canning facility near 13th Street in Columbus. They were paid for their work, including $13 a month that they could use to purchase candy, other food and toiletries at the base dispensary.

Franz Wilming decided to abandon all that in early May 1945. That’s when Jack, then called Jackie, came into the picture. I learned about his story from Columbus resident Anita Cherlin, who passed along a brief mention of the incident in a book called “Prisoner of War – A Reference Handbook” by historian Arnold Krammer.

In discussing POW escapes and attempts in the U.S., Krammer wrote:

“At Camp Atterbury, Indiana, one escapee was captured by an 8-year-old boy who was playing with a toy pistol and ordered an imaginary ‘bad guy’ to come out of an abandoned shack near the boy’s home in Columbus, Indiana. No one would have been more surprised than he when Franz Wilming stepped out to surrender.”

Krammer did not identify the boy, but with the assistance of The Republic’s archive at AIM.newspapers.com (which contains every issue of the newspaper from its founding in 1872), I was able to access the story from May 7, 1945.

I instantly recognized the name of the future Columbus fire chief, Jackie McKay, and that of his father, Cuba McKay. I also recognized some differences between Krammer’s account and that of the newspaper. One was that Jackie’s weapon was a wooden sword, not a pistol.

Both recounted that the youngster saw something in the shack, and the newspaper quoted Jackie as calling out, “Come down out of there, Rowland,” referring to the resident bad guy in an imaginary children’s game “Desert Hawk.” The boy was, indeed, surprised when a German POW stood before him, but the escapee didn’t turn himself in to Jackie.

Instead he ran, but Jackie continued his police work in the shack, coming across a small book that contained a letter addressed to Franz Wilming at the Atterbury POW camp. He took it home to his mother with the suggestion that she might be able “to read me a story tonight.”

I doubt that Jackie got a nighttime story in German, but his mother, Ira McKay, quickly called her husband at police headquarters, and a joint search operation involving local police and Atterbury military police was launched.

The next night a Columbus resident named M.A. Gobin and the MP he had offered a ride back to the camp saw a suspicious man crossing a farm field near the Eighth Street Bridge. It was Franz Wilming.

Ironically, the story about Jackie’s capture of Wilming took a back seat to the main story of that day. Germany had surrendered.

Perhaps Franz Wilming was not trying to escape from the United States. Maybe he was escaping to the United States.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.