HUGHSON -- In these days of instant communication, even in war zones, it's hard to imagine what it was like for Jane McElrath to wait for months to find out whether her future husband, Mac, had survived after his plane was shot down over Germany during World War II.
Jane was working in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Her fiancé, Mac, was a pilot in the Air Force and had been sent to England to fly B-24s in the war. On Jan. 2, 1944, "they were on a raid over the submarine pens in Germany when they were shot down," Jane said.
Mac ended up spending the next 16 months as a prisoner of war in Stalag 1, a German POW camp near the Baltic Sea.
Today, the McElraths will hang out U.S. and POW flags from the balcony of their Hughson apartment to celebrate Veterans Day. Mac, 93, and Jane, 90, are among the more than 26,700 veterans living in Stanislaus County. Mac is hard of hearing and recuperating from a minor stroke, so his wife told their story.
"He said they were treated fairly well, compared to what some of the others (POWs) went through," Jane said. "There were quite a few English prisoners there; some were there from the very beginning of the war. He said the American commanders in the camp were able to deal with the Germans and refused to let the prisoners march, as some of the other (POWs) in other camps had to do."
But for four months, neither Jane nor Mac's parents, who lived next door to Jane's family in their hometown of Waterville, Minn., knew if he was alive. The only word they received was that he was missing in action.
Although nearly seven decades have passed, Jane remembers those days well.
"It is very vivid yet," she said. "After the shock of knowing he was missing, it was months before we heard he was a prisoner."
They received that word, she said, from a "lot of men on the East Coast who maintained short-wave radio contact with Germany. The Germans would let the prisoners say who they were and who their parents were. The boys were listening 24 hours a day, and when they heard a name, they would send postcards to the parents. (Mac's parents) found out from them that he was alive sooner than the Red Cross gave them the news."
After the Russians liberated the camp, Mac arrived in the United States at New York Harbor on July 4, 1945.
"The fireboats were spraying red, white and blue water to welcome them home," Jane said. "It was quite a deal!"
Mac then traveled to Springfield, Mo., where Jane was stationed at a hospital.
"We had a three-day pass, and we were married there in Springfield," she said. "We spent our honeymoon in Branson, Mo. It only had one little theater and a couple of motels back then."
Jane, the third of five children, entered a Minnesota nursing school in 1941, a year after graduating high school. The program combined daily academic instruction and hospital work, which she said was a "very valuable" way to learn.
When she graduated three years later, there was a severe nursing shortage in the country because so many nurses were joining the armed forces. "So I became the (hospital obstetrics) supervisor right out of school," she said.
About six months later, she joined the Army Nurse Corps, which had only 1,000 nurses at the start of the war and 12,000 at the end. Jane was sent to Fort Carson, Colo., for a month of basic training and then was sent to the hospital in Springfield.
She received word that she would be deployed to the Pacific Theater. "Then they dropped the atomic bomb and everything changed," she said.
Mac and Jane were released from the military within a day of each other, in October 1945. They returned home to Minnesota, where Mac took a job with the railroad.
"The Minnesota winters" prompted them to move West, Jane said with a laugh. One of Mac's friends had written, saying that because of the Korean War, railroad workers were in demand in California. The McElraths moved to the Golden State in 1950.
"We had a little mobile home, and we moved up and down the valley a couple of times," Jane said. "Then he got a job in Modesto, so we stayed there. But he could see the railroad (industry) was changing, so he took an opportunity with a bank in Ceres. We moved there in 1956."
They remained Ceres residents until they moved to Samaritan Village a couple of years ago.
Jane calls the war years and her time in the service "an interesting time. It was at the end of (the) Depression that had affected most of the country, so it was quite a time for (the war) to happen."
And, she added, "I think everyone involved appreciated freedom much more" than many U.S. residents do now.
"We pretty well understood what we were doing," she said of their military service.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2012.