OPINION | Tom Dillard: Ewell McCright another colorful Arkansas character

Ewell McCright
Ewell McCright

My friend Ray Baxter, a veteran lawyer in Benton, tells great stories about the late Ewell McCright, another member of the Benton bar. I came to know Ray when invited to join an informal lunch group in Benton not long after my wife and I retired to nearby Glen Rose in 2014. Luncheon conversation ranged across a broad spectrum, but I heard the name Ewell McCright repeated often.

I learned that McCright had been a World War II prisoner of war, a University of Arkansas law school graduate, a state legislator, and a moderately successful lawyer. But he aged poorly, becoming an alcoholic and behaving in eccentric ways, including walking about wearing nothing but a green cape. Still, one cannot discount McCright's service to his fellow POWs during the war, which earned him a place in the history of that monumental conflict.

Ewell Ross McCright was born Dec. 4, 1917, the son of Lewis and Minnie Donham McCright. Little is known of his early life. Arnold Wright of Benton, who has written a book on McCright's war service, wrote that McCright never married and never had children. Ray Baxter told me that McCright was slender and very tall, and when he rose from a chair it was as if he were unfolding himself, finally straightening, with his head towering over everyone.

McCright enlisted in the U.S. Army in December 1940, a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was accepted into Army aviation cadet training and assigned to a B-17 bombardier training class. Freshly commissioned, Lt. McCright was soon attached to the 8th Army Air Corps' 303rd Bombardment Group and sent to a base in England. The 303rd flew its first mission on Nov. 17, 1942. On the following day, the unit was attacked by 30 German fighters, and quite remarkably managed to shoot down at least one fighter before all the bombers returned safely. That would soon change.

Initially, the 303rd flew daytime bombing missions at high altitudes, and targets were often beyond the range of their fighter escorts. On his third mission on Jan. 23, 1943, McCright's aircraft was hit by enemy fire with seven of the 10 crew members killed before he, the navigator, and the radio operator bailed out. McCright landed in the Bay of Biscayne, and the Germans took him prisoner upon his drifting ashore.

His captors took McCright to a local Luftwaffe prison, where he was hospitalized for treatment of a heel injury. After being interrogated, he was sent to a POW camp northwest of occupied Warsaw, Poland. Soon he was transferred to a large newly constructed Stalag Luft III in Sagan, a Prussian district in far western Poland's Silesia.

The prison grew rapidly to include five large compounds, each containing multiple barracks. British prisoners were housed separately from the Americans. The single-story wooden barracks had a central hallway which opened into rooms housing six men each. As the war progressed, more men were assigned to each room, ultimately reaching 16.

Each barracks had a washroom, toilet facilities, a mirror, and a cold-water shower. A coal-burning stove sat in the corner of each room to provide heat. Prisoners slept on three-deck wooden bunkbeds atop straw-filled mattresses. A single electrical light bulb provided light, aided somewhat by a small window.

The German commandant was Luftwaffe Col. Freidrick-Wilhelm von Lindeiner. He ran the prison by the book, but not inhumanely. Late in the war he was court-martialed for refusing to cooperate with the Gestapo, but he managed to hang on to his post and survived the war.

Despite being heavily guarded by German airmen, the prisoners managed to mount ongoing escape attempts. Numerous escape tunnels were dug, though all but one were discovered by the guards. They sneaked a radio into the compound in a hollowed-out loaf of bread, so the prisoners kept up with war news.

Prison wore heavily on McCright at first, but he rebounded when asked by ranking American officer Lt. Col. (later General) A.P. Clark to keep a record of all American prisoners at the camp. Ultimately, he filled four ledgers with information on some 2,194 prisoners, including their wartime injuries. Twelve Purple Heart medals were later awarded based on the ledgers.

The entries are short but powerful: Lt. Peter Branch of Washington, D.C., was wounded when his plane was shot down over Rouen, France. He managed to elude captors for 33 days before being turned in by a Frenchman. A pilot from California was burned badly when shot down but survived, and later "escaped from Stalag III by cutting wire in daylight. Captured three days later. Placed in chains upon recapture. Single."

McCright kept the ledgers well hidden, and took them with him when the prisoners were marched to a new prison as the Russian army drew near. The camp was soon liberated by American forces, and McCright clung to his records. He took them home upon discharge, placing the ledgers in a foot locker in the attic. They were not discovered until after McCright's death in 1990 age 72. He would later be awarded the Legion of Merit.

McCright used his military benefits to go to college and law school. After setting up a law practice in Benton, he was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1950. These were the signs of a man with a bright future. Then came a slow-motion implosion.

No one seems to know how Ewell McCright evolved into the character he became, but evidence of his eccentricities -- or perhaps his mental condition -- became public in his youth when he caused a commotion by climbing to the top of the Benton water tower (which still stands) and threatening to jump. Alcohol exacerbated his bizarre behavior.

As you might expect, McCright -- who owned a huge gold-colored Chrysler Imperial and a Cadillac -- found himself facing drunk driving charges multiple times. He defended himself -- including calling himself to the stand, then running back to the lectern to ask himself questions.

Ray Baxter, an insurance adjuster at the time, witnessed McCright go into a yard where two Rottweiler dogs were growling menacingly. The dogs quieted down when McCright, clad in a green cape and a Russian fur cap, showed up and began speaking in German to them.

McCright never lost his law license, though one lawyer repeatedly complained to the local bar association. Rumor held that McCright was protected by a local judge.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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