It’s not uncommon for retired servicemen to remind civilians that Memorial Day is for the departed and Veteran’s Day is for the living. And at 95, Webster County’s Ivan L. Russell is clearly part of the later. “He still drives his own car and mows his own grass,” said Madisonville’s Steve Ray during an evening celebration commemorating Russell’s service during World War II. “He’s an American hero and certainly worthy of our praise.”
Russell was imprisoned for 27 months in Stalag 3A, a prisoner-of-war camp near Luckenwalde, Germany, until liberated by Russian forces on April 22, 1945. “Most people couldn’t believe the things that happened to us,” said Russell, “but I came through it better than most. I was fortunate that way and hope nobody ever has to go through such a thing ever again.
“After all these years I still can’t understand people being so mean. Human life doesn’t mean anything to them,” Russell said.
Upon returning home, Russell married his high school sweetheart, Lucy Powell, and worked as a school teacher, as his mother had before him. In presenting a Congressional Certificate of Appreciation, Congressman Ed Whitfield said that Russell’s life showed his devotion to duty, honor and country. “Your life certainly reflects that,” Whitfield said.
Before the largest-attended meeting of the Hopkins County Genealogical Society, the Webster County native also was named a Kentucky Colonel and was presented a U.S. flag that flew over the nation’s Capitol. “I don’t know if it was overdue or not,” said Russell. “But it feels nice.”
Drafted in 1941, Russell served in Northern Africa until captured by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, known as “the Desert Fox,” in Algiers in 1943. “I don’t care much for Germans because of the way we were treated, but Rommel, he gave it to us straight—in near-perfect English—and I have to say, he was a distinguished gentleman … for a German.”
During his time as a prisoner, Russell lost more than 30 pounds and, according to friend Peyton Adams, Russell suffers due to his feet being frozen during a forced march. “I still can’t hardly stand fish nor soup because that’s about all we had,” said Russell. “If it weren’t for the Red Cross, we would have starved to death.”
In his opening remarks at the ceremony honoring Russell, Joe Melton of the Hopkins County Historical Society said, “My mother idolized Mr. Russell (the teacher). Mama made sure as a young man I had good role models: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Davy Crockett and Ivan Russell.”
Melton, who had heard many stories about Russell growing up met one of Russell’s fellow prisoners of war, agriculture professor Arlie Scott, while attending Murray State University and was able to reunite the two, who visited each other regularly until Scott’s death in 2012. “I could sit and listen to their stories for hours,” said Melton. “I am honored to call them my friends.”
The evening’s ceremony also included a video montage of more than 1,200 photographs taken by fellow prisoner Angelo Spinelli, who showed that while the conditions in Stalag 3A were far from ideal, the Americans were able to reconstruct a little bit of normality behind prison walls. Fortunate to be captured along with the regimental band, the prisoners had musical and theatrical productions, football and baseball games. One of Russell’s fellow prisoners, Mickey Grasso, played Major League Baseball with the New York Giants, Washington Senators and Cleveland Indians after the war.
“We did what we could, but we didn’t do much because it was so cold,” said Russell. “We played a lot of cards. Read a lot of books and stood for a lot of roll calls,” Russell said.
After being liberated, Russell was hospitalized and eventually returned to the United States. “I can still vividly remember crying when I saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time,” Russell said, holding back tears. “It was a beautiful sight and even after all these years, the memory gets to me.”