To Paul Dillon and most of the people who have seen the antique jewelry-like chain featuring a German coin and a piece of elk ivory that had been in Stan Muczynsky’s possession for decades, it appears to be a watch fob.
No one knows for sure. Even Muczynsky, a World War II veteran and POW, didn’t know when he took the chain from a home near Braunau, Austria, in April 1945.
But now decades later, Dillon, president of the Jefferson Barracks POW-MIA Museum in St. Louis, is doing what he can to return the chain to its rightful owner (or at least the region from where it was taken), because that was Muczynsky’s wish before he died in February 2014.
Dillon was contacted last year by Muczynsky’s son-in-law, Richard Smith, about returning the chain. Smith made a trip to Austria in 2017 trying to return it, but had no luck. In fact, a man he met there thought the chain wasn’t a watch fob at all, but rather simply an heirloom piece handed down from father to son.
Smith didn’t know where else to turn to with the chain and thought if nothing else, the museum could display it as a way to share one POW’s story.
The museum, which currently is closed for renovations and restoration work, is located in the circa 1890s Officers’ Quarters Building located in the Jefferson Barracks Historic District.
“The mission of the Jefferson Barracks POW-MIA Museum is to reverently honor all who served our country in any branch of the United States military, who were captured by enemies of the United States, or who are missing in action, from any year and from any conflict. This mission includes raising the awareness of the American public to the numbers of captured Americans who returned to us alive, and to the numbers of those who perished in captivity, and to the numbers of those service personnel missing who have not yet been returned to us for the homage they deserve.”
The Jefferson Barracks POW-MIA Museum is the only one of its kind in the country, said Dillon, because it focuses on telling the stories of both POWs and MIAs.
Muczynsky grew up in Stubenville, Ohio. During World War II, he served in the Army Air Corps as a radio operator/gunner on a B-24 Liberator.
“He was with the 451st Bomb Group,” said Dillon. “They flew out of southern Italy.”
Muczynsky’s plane was shot down April 2, 1944, when they were bombing Steyr, Austria, said Dillon.
“I think it was a munitions plant, but they were coming back, and they were shot down over what was then Yugoslavia,” Dillon said.
Muczynsky was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Stalag 17B in northeastern Austria with more than 4,000 American airmen POWs (Dillon’s own father was among them).
A year after he was captured, in April 1945, the end of the war was near. Russian forces were closing in from the east. Trying to avoid capture, the Germans forced the POWs to march westward 281 miles.
“They arrived in a forest, I think Leech Forest outside of Braunau, Austria,” said Dillon. “It was here, around May 1 or 2, that they ran into elements of Patton’s 13th Armored Division, they were known as the Black Cats.”
The Black Cats took control of the area, and on May 3, the POWs were officially considered liberated, said Dillon.
From that point, the Black Cats moved on with their mission, leaving the POWs behind to wait for transportation to arrive taking them to France.
It was during this interim time that some of the POWs went “souvenir hunting,” said Dillon. Muczynsky entered a home in the area and took the chain.
“Some of these men had been POWs for more than two years at this point, and I guess they felt like something was owed to them and it was maybe payback time for them,” Dillon speculated. “I think that’s what this was about.”
One thing is clear, however: Muczynsky was bothered by his actions for years and wished he could undo them.
Muczynsky never talked to anyone else in his family about taking the chain. He only spoke to his son-in-law about it and in doing so, asked him to return it in some way.
Dillon said that is not surprising, really. Many of the POWs he has spoken with over the years, including his father, were bothered by their actions during the war.
“When you are in the air, above it, there is a lot of destruction going on below. But as a POW, they were on the ground and saw the results of the bombing and destruction and the war,” said Dillon. “They knew it had to be done, but it bothered them.
“Other bomber crews I’ve talked to, it bothered them too, so it probably bothered Stan. He was probably just wanting to make things right, a way of saying ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
Dillon has been in contact with the Lower Austrian Regional Museum in St. Poltena, which has agreed to accept the chain and display it. He is still working on getting the chain shipped there. There has been a little difficulty as a result of the language barrier.
Photos of the chain and of Muczynsky will be displayed at the Jefferson Barracks POW-MIA Museum to tell and illustrate the story.
Of course for much of the story, they can only speculate on Muczynsky’s reasons, both for taking the piece in the first place and then wanting to return it, because he didn’t talk about the experience until the end and even then he didn’t share a lot of details.
People can fill in the blanks on their own for why Muczynsky did what he did.
“We just think that as far as the museum, it’s one of those stories that people would never know,” said Dillon. “It’s not something you would normally come across, but it’s certainly very personal and very interesting, and it says something about Stan.
“We call them the Greatest Generation, but they were not perfect. The circumstances were not the nicest or the most pleasant, but it speaks of him to keep it all these years and want to return it.
“It kind of tears at your heart,” Dillon remarked. “All these years he kept it and that was probably eating at him. For POWs and their families, I don’t think those feelings go away.”
For more information on the Jefferson Barracks POW-MIA Museum, go to www.jbpow-mia.org or write to them at JB POW-MIA Museum, P.O. Box 67, St. Charles, MO 63302-0067.