Imagine, if you will for a moment, a situation of being stripped away from your family, from anyone or anything you have ever known in your life and having to deal with the feeling of never seeing them again. A situation of being placed in a cell, no bigger then your living room, with about twenty other people for months at a time. You wake up day in and day out, not knowing what the next moment will bring – not knowing if this was the day you may die or if God has other plans for you. All of this you bear on your shoulders, but keep bottled up, so that you are able to raise the spirits of your other bunkmates – the soldiers who have met the same fate as you. You are tasked to help them keep going, to keep up the hope in their hearts that they will return home again.
I imagined this when I was in boot camp. We had an overnight field training exercise and our drill sergeants gathered us around that evening to talk about prisoners of war. They discussed with us the ultimate struggle these brave men had to overcome during their time of imprisonment. While the instructors talked, all I could think about was how my own grandfather felt.
Frederick A. Towle, went into the Air Cadet School of Texas, in the spring of 1943. Several more schools in California and Colorado secured him the knowledge of piloting two-engine planes and soon after gave him the role of an Army officer in charge of his very own bomb crew and a B-17 plane. The Reluctant Dragon first landed in London, November of 1944. The Reluctant Dragon – such a peculiar name for a warplane – little did these men know what was to become of this aircraft and of them. My grandfather, now LT. Towle, and his crew were to begin their missions during the war efforts of WWII. Twelve missions were flown in November and completed by the Reluctant Dragon, but the 13th mission marked the end of their success in the air. My grandfather and his crew were shot down in Germany during their return and never made it back over the border into France. He was faced with an officer’s worst fear; he and his whole crew were taken as prisoners of war. On November 21, 1944 (almost 70 years to the day) the 413th Squadron of the Reluctant Dragon was marched into the Air POW camp of Stalag Luft One in Barth, Germany.
I remember being absolutely still in my seat when my Grandfather came to tell his stories to my 7th grade history class. Walking into class that day, I was so surprised to see my grandfather dressed fully in his officer uniform. I recalled my shock when I saw all the “souvenirs” that my grandfather had kept all these years later, as I ran my fingers over the swastika of the fork and spoon he had obtained from POW camp. I sat perfectly still as he described what had happened to him during and after the war, and I can still remember my friend sitting across from me, turning and leaning towards my desk to ask, “You must be so sick of hearing these stories, huh?”
Without missing a beat I turned back to him and said back, “No, this is the first time I’m hearing them.”
For six long months during the winter of 1944, my grandfather and his men were POWs of the Stalag Luft One. The conversations they must have had. The things they must have witnessed. It must have taken all of their strength, all of their being – to not let go. Every day they must have willed themselves to not give up on each other…or on themselves. My grandfather never talked about his time there, before his guest appearance in my class, or after – ever again. May 11, 1945 proved to be the best day for the 413th Squadron. This was the day that Col. Zemke and Major Sundquist came to the camp – to free them all. May 11th was the day that the Reluctant Dragon finally came home and was also the greatest early birthday present that my grandfather could ever ask for (he turned 25 two weeks later.)
I am still hung up on the name given to my grandfather’s plane. Despite all odds against them, the Reluctant Dragon made its way home, when many others were not so fortunate in WWII. The word “reluctant” doesn’t suit my grandfather, his crew, or any military person for that matter. All of these individuals, both men and women – then and now, help secure our country’s rights and freedoms that we have today.
No, the word “reluctant” will not do. The word “reliant” sounds a lot better…