Newport News native returned from POW camp to star at Duke

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John Seward, Duke

John Seward was a star basketball player at Newport News High before earning All-Southern Conference honors at Duke. (archive photo, Daily Press / March 15, 2011)

John Seward never lost his affection for Duke basketball. A former all-conference forward, he returned to campus for games, ventured to a Final Four and held coach Mike Krzyzewski in high regard.

But Duke basketball did lose Seward after his first two seasons. Not to injury or the NBA.

To war. To a POW camp in Limburg, Germany.

So as reigning champion Duke prepares for Friday's NCAA tournament game against Hampton University, here is a story from another era, a story of courage, sacrifice and love.

The son of a Newport News shipbuilder, John "Bubber" Seward grew up in a boarding house on 32nd Street. He attended Newport News High and played basketball for coach Julie Conn.

Another iconic coach, Duke's Eddie Cameron, noticed Seward's talents and offered him a scholarship. Seward played on the Blue Devils' 1942 Southern Conference champions and a year later earned first-team, All-Southern honors.

Taken by Conn and Cameron, he dreamed of becoming a coach.

But first, duty called.

Drafted in 1943, Seward joined the 7th Army's 103rd Infantry Division in southern France during the winter of 1944-45. Almost immediately, he and 17 comrades were sent to free part of an American regiment cut off by the Nazis.

The combat was fierce, and after two days, Seward and Co., ran out of ammunition. They were captured Jan. 20, the day of FDR's fourth inaugural.

"Bubber Seward, Local Star Athlete, Missing In Action," read a Daily Press headline Feb. 8.

The Germans transported their prisoners via a dank box car to Stalag !2-A. The journey took three days, during which Seward later told friends his feet froze from the cold.

But that was tame compared to camp life. Prisoners slept outside, in foxholes. They received flour water and potato peelings for breakfast — soup would be a generous description — and black bread for dinner.

Seward lost 40 pounds.

"He didn't talk much about it," Seward's son, Joe, says of his father's POW experience. "But he did say he'd never miss another meal."

Seventy-one days into his capture, Seward heard the Germans abandoning the camp. Soon thereafter, Third Army tanks arrived.

Germany surrendered a month later, days after Hitler's suicide.

Seward returned to Duke after the war and made all-conference again in 1946. As a senior in '47, he captained the Blue Devils and served as Student Government Association president.

Most important, he met Matilda Paty at a Sigma Chi dance at the Washington-Duke Hotel. Months later, they were married at the Duke Chapel.

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