LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. – On the night of Jan. 27, 1945, 2nd Lt. Carlisle Nottingham trudged through waist-deep snow with his fellow prisoners of war on a forced march away from their German prison camp to an uncertain future.
His body numb from the cold and one of his teeth newly chipped from trying to eat a piece of frozen bread, the 24-year-old American navigator reached in his pocket hoping to find warmth in a reminder of his beach-side home: his high-school class ring.
But Nottingham’s frozen fingers found nothing — the pocket was empty. Immediately he knew he had left the ring in another pair of pants back at the camp. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll never see that again,'” said Nottingham.
Mysterious gift. But through a mysterious gift, the curiosity of a young German, and the miracle of the Internet, the ring and its owner may soon be reunited.
Just before Christmas, a 21-year-old German named Mathias Franke was given a ring by his grandfather, who had served with the Germans in World War II. “This is all I have for you. This ring saved my life,” his grandfather told him.
But he would say no more of how exactly the ring saved his life. All Franke knows is that his grandfather bought the ring from an ex-prisoner in 1960 for about 100 German marks — about $120 in U.S. dollars today.
“(My grandfather) gave me the ring for ‘bad times.’ (He said) I should sell the ring if I (needed) money,” said Franke.
A few weeks later, Franke was hanging out with a friend and her American boyfriend when he noticed the boyfriend wearing a similar ring. The American explained the ring was from his high school, and the year engraved on it was the year he had graduated.
With the information engraved inside his ring, Franke thought he might be able to track down the owner.
The ring had “Cape Charles High School” and “1937” engraved on it, plus the figures of two ships and two flowers. Franke searched on the Internet for Cape Charles High School and discovered the school had been located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, but had closed in 1987. Undaunted, Franke decided to write Cela Burge, the contact listed on a Web site dedicated to the town of Cape Charles.
As the town manager for the 1,100 people living there, Burge receives all of the questions that are sent to the town’s Web site. Last November, she was going through the usual messages when she came across an e-mail from Franke.
“I got a ring from my grandfather. A golden one,” Franke wrote, adding the ring was topped with a blue stone and, “inside the ring was written CLN.”
Burge, fascinated by the story, looked up the records for the school’s class of 1937. The class had only 12 members, and only one with the initials C.L.N.: Carlisle L. Nottingham.
Unsure if Nottingham was even still alive, Burge picked up the phone book, looked under the N’s, and there he was: Nottingham, Carlisle. The address was in Painter, Va. – only about 30 miles from Cape Charles.
Nottingham’s story. When Burge called Nottingham, he was shocked. From the description Nottingham knew the ring was his. “I was the only person in my class who chose a blue stone. I got it because it was my birthstone,” he said in a recent interview. “I was very proud of it at the time because, of course, we were still getting over the Depression days.”
He shared with Burge the circumstances leading up to the loss of the ring more than 50 years before.
He was studying medicine at the University of Virginia when the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted him to join the Army Air Forces. “I wanted to fly,” he said.
Nottingham learned to fly B-17 Flying Fortresses and made bombing runs out of Polebrook Air Field, England. After a mission over Germany on May 14, 1943, an enemy plane shot down Nottingham and his crew members near Belgium’s shore.
“They got a lucky hit,” Nottingham said. “We could see the white cliffs of Dover (in England) when we went down.”
The airmen were interned in a POW camp called Stalag Luft III near the border of Germany and Poland.
On Jan. 27, 1945, while the prisoners of Stalag Luft III’s American camp watched a play called “You Can’t Take It With You,” an announcement came telling everyone in the camp to be at the gate in 30 minutes. The Russians were approaching, and the Germans wanted to move everyone quickly.
Nottingham had left his ring in another pair of pants earlier that night. In the chaos of the rapid departure, he forgot to retrieve it.
The prisoners marched more than 15 miles in near-zero temperatures and rode packed together in boxcars before ending up at another camp, Stalag VIIA in Moosburg, Germany.
Liberated. Gen. George Patton and his troops finally liberated Nottingham and the other prisoners April 29, 1945.
“He walked right next to me,” said Nottingham. “I could see his pearl-handled pistols.”
Nottingham returned to Virginia’s Eastern Shore and then moved to Texas. He lived there for 28 years and worked for the U.S. Post Office.
Nottingham lost two wives and helped raise two daughters before moving back home to the Eastern Shore in May 2001, just seven months before getting the news about his long-lost ring.
When Nottingham finished telling Burge his story, she gave him the e-mail address for 21-year-old Franke, who holds the ring in Berlin.
Hope to meet. The three talk often and now are trying to find a way to get Nottingham back to Germany to meet Franke and retrieve his ring.
“For it to turn up like this is real amazing, and the fact that he wants to give it back to me,” said Nottingham, who still has the chipped tooth to remind him of the night he lost the ring.
“I can unfortunately afford no flight to the USA and hope that an organization in the USA will bring CLN to Berlin,” said Franke in an e-mail. He said he wants to give the ring back for “my own satisfaction, my private luck, and the feeling that I (did) something right. I don’t know really why. I think maybe there is reason why I got the ring.”
Franke is learning to become an “office man” at a solar-technic firm in Berlin where he said, “The money is bad. So what. That’s life.” Despite his lack of money, he will not sell the ring as his grandfather suggested because, “I (have) the possibility to do something for my soul and for the soul of Mr. Nottingham.”
Burge would also like to see the former prisoner of war get a piece of his history back.
“People like Carlisle and his generation did wonderful things for our country. They gave up a lot, and they did it because they thought it was right,” she said. “Not only did he lose his freedom, but when he lost his class ring, he lost the only piece of community he had with him, the thing that tied him back to what he was there for. Now, (Franke) is willing to give back the ring for the same reason Carlisle was over there – just because he thinks it’s right.”
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