Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

May 7, 2013

Historic bar and World War II slave labor

Pat Smith
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — You may remember Tom Keating, who for several years wrote an Indianapolis Star column.

Keating died in 1985 at age 45, but his legacy lives in the annual Thomas R. Keating Feature Writer Program award sponsored by the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation.

Butch Kennedy, subject of last week’s column, has a Keating column hanging in his museum at Smith’s Crossing. Actually it’s in the bar. Keating started the column: “One hundred and 20 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln spent part of his 52nd birthday in Indianapolis trying to avoid the Indiana legislature.”

He continued the column by explaining that Lincoln had just been elected President and was en-route from Springfield to Washington.

He tells how Lincoln was greeted in Indianapolis, being the head of the parade through downtown Indianapolis and ended at the Bates House – “a hotel located on the north side of Washington Street, just west of Illinois street.”

Lincoln spoke from a Bates House balcony and attended a reception in the Bates House drawing rooms. Lincoln stood at a bar and imbibed a little - it was his birthday after all.

Now where do you think that bar is today? It is right here in Decatur County in Butch Kennedy’s museum. Butch told me of the way the bar got to his museum, but I was much too interested in seeing one of Keating’s columns again and looking over this marvelous old bar to take the proper notes. If you go see the memorabilia that Butch has collected over the years he’ll tell you all about the old bar, and you may even feel the awe that I felt while standing there.

The Bates House location later became the Claypool Hotel built in 1903 with financial help from Connersville’s Edward Claypool. The balcony from which Lincoln spoke was purchased by an Indianapolis family and attached to their home. I saw the balcony just a couple of weeks ago but that’s another story and column.

Keating finished his column, “Lincoln boarded his train and left for his next stop, Cincinnati.” You and I know, thanks to Decatur County’s Dr. Calvin Davis, that Lincoln stopped in Greensburg on his way to Cincinnati. Keating ended his column, “Indianapolis residents would not see Lincoln alive again. On April 30, 1865, his funeral train stopped in Indianapolis on its way to Springfield. Lincoln’s body was placed in the Indiana State Capitol Building from 8 a.m. to midnight on a gloomy Sunday.”

Now for something else that Butch Kennedy did recently. He let it be known that he had just met the most amazing person. He tells of meeting Gustav Potthoff, a survivor of the World War II Japanese slave labor camps. He was able to take some excellent pictures of Potthoff who helped build the notorious Bridge over the River Kwai.

Butch said that he met the veteran and volunteer at the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum in Columbus.  He learned the day that he was there that 200,000 men died while building the ‘Hell Fire’ road dug totally by the hands of the slaves. He said, “This guy (Potthoff) is awesome. He is 90-plus years old and still has a very clear mind.

He was born the son of a World War I German soldier and an Indonesian woman. He has quite a story to tell, well worth the trip to see him.”

Kennedy said that Potthoff paints with a sponge. “You can see the anguish in his paintings and he talked of how he would like to find the grave of his Australian friend he buried in the jungle.” The Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum has some of his work there.

The volunteers of the museum raised funds to make the film “Lest We Forget,” based on Potthoff’s life as a World War II slave labor camp survivor.

The film tries to honor the POW’s that worked and died alongside him on the Burma-Thailand “Death Railway” and the “Bridge over the River Kwai.”

I remember seeing Gustav Potthoff on one of WFYI television programs. As he said, “Life is pretty when you are free.” He does see beauty now. He has become quite a good artist. Although every day is a good day to honor our veterans, this is a time of year that we try to acknowledge and demonstrate our appreciation for our veterans who have assured our freedom.  They are a firm reminder of what every veteran knows well, that freedom isn’t free.

Thanks to Vietnam veteran Butch Kennedy for this and last week’s columns.

Note: Today is Taussie’s second birthday but she’s happy to put her column off until June.

— Daily News