He was not rescued on-screen by Tom Hanks in last summer's Saving Private Ryan. He was not delivered, as was Jonah, from deep within the whale's stomach. He was, however, a captive, a prisoner of war, a man who narrowly escaped death in one of Hitler's prison camps. His story, like the others, should be told.
After a Veteran's Day service at a small church, we sit opposite each other at a table; Gene -- a kind and friendly man -- relaxes, sipping from a cup of tea, his monogrammed "Prisoner of War" jacket draped across his lap. I anxiously sit questioning him with pen in hand, unprepared for the extraordinary tale that I was to hear. He slides his glasses down his nose, and with a friendly, familiar smile, he recollects a time more than five decades ago.
On August 15, 1944, with one of the world's most recognizable landmarks, the Leaning Tower of Pisa looming in the background, a US Army unit once of 60 men, now reduced to 13, sought shelter in an abandoned house, frantically trying to escape death. For 20 year old Corporal Flowers, the darkest horrors of war, the carnage, and the uncertainty of life or death had become a reality. An ocean separating him from the country he loved, the security of the rural Pennsylvania town of Bunola, and the family and girlfriend he had left behind, Gene was embarking on a collision with his own destiny.
It had only been a matter of months since the day he was conscripted into the Army -- March 3, 1943 -- and he was relying on his training at Camp Wheeler and Fort Meade to keep him and the remnants of his unit alive. Similarly, only six hours since the battle with the Nazis -- the most trying part of his life -- had commenced; Gene was lying, without ammunition, in the ruins of the house, a house nearly destroyed by constant machine gun bursts and hand-grenade explosions. Moments after a grenade had exploded, opening like an umbrella from the windowsill, the company lieutenant, while clutching with one hand his nearly severed arm, informed the survivors that "the decision to surrender is up to you." "Here we were," Gene elaborates, "without ammunition, wounded, so we did what we could, we just surrendered." "Sadly," Gene recollects, "little to our knowledge, reinforcements were only 300 yards away."
Little sympathy and rude medical treatment was granted to the survivors -- the captives -- by the Germans as they made their way by train through Austria's Brenner Pass, a trip halted by US bombings of the tracks. Gene vividly recalls the treatment for his wounds, a German doctor hastily "digging" with a razor blade -- a substitute for a sterile scalpel -- and tweezers "pulling" the vestiges of the shrapnel that had torn deep into his chest. Gene also remembers the systemic "blood poisoning," how his skin turned "bright red," and the pain that accompanied it. Upon arriving at the infamous "Stalag 7A", a camp designed for 10,000 prisoners now overflowing with 50,000, his medical treatment continued. "I was examined by a Russian doctor, given a medicated ointment, like Vaseline, a shot and a steam bath," Gene explains. He was on the road to recovery, a recovery that had to occur in the few days before his assigned work detail. Gene spent the majority of those few days in a "penitentiary" type cell in solitude, that is, unless he was being interrogated, along with his lieutenant and sergeant, for hours about the number and location of troops. "I just answered them the way I was trained; name, rank, and serial number, that's it," an answer rewarded with a blunt and forceful crack of the guard's rifle stock to his side, neck, and back.
Assigned first to a railroad yard in Munich, Gene was later sent to a camp in Oberstdorf -- a town in the Bavarian Alps -- a site where his hardships would continue. "We (the remnants of the unit) worked for the city, in various stations, making ice, storing it in underground areas, and maintaining the pipes and mechanisms so the ice could go in right." While in Oberstdorf, the prisoners performed "hard labor" daily, without the proper clothing for the temperature. "It was cold when we shoveled snow. The temperature rarely rose above 15 degrees, but we tried to fight the cold by using the caps from our helmets as gloves." One afternoon, while shoveling feet of snow, an elderly American woman disfigured with severe arthritis, who was trapped in Germany, spotted the worn GIs. "She came and asked me if we could use hats, so the next day she returned with 13. Boy, they sure came in handy."
Despite the poor diet, mostly "watery soup", deplorable conditions, improper clothing, hard labor, and punishment -- prodded from bayonets -- Gene sought to make the best of his situation. He recalls, "One Sunday, I stole a chicken from the coop and hid it in my coat, and others stole eggs, lard, and wood for the makeshift stove." Making use of a 50-pound drum lid as a skillet, he prepared Sunday dinner for the unit. "The neighboring captives went crazy from the smell of fried chicken," Gene laughs, "so we shared that bird with them, and the German guards too" -- a gesture that was rewarded, thereafter, by the guards giving them stolen loaves of bread.
Gene admits that he elicited most of his strength from his faith in the Lord. "A fellow captive from Boston read passages from the Bible for encouragement, and we would sit on our bunks and listen intensely."
On May 1, 1945, with white sheets steaming from the town hall's flagpole, the church steeples and windows of homes, the French captured the town and liberated the camp. "I spent some time at Fort Lucky Strike, France before being sent home. Our trip home was delayed as we shipwrecked off the coast of Newfoundland in a storm -- finally after 23 days we arrived at Fort Dix, NJ. Later we were sent to Fort McClelland, where we were to prepare for the South Pacific campaign against the Japanese. Fortunately, just days before being shipped to the South Pacific, the Empire of Japan had surrendered because of the atomic bombings."
Upon discharge by the War Department, following a mishap in which his files were lost, Gene was eligible for the Purple Heart. "On November 30, 1945, I went home." His eyes well with tears. Vivian Flowers, the girlfriend he left behind whom he'd later marry, adds, "He never spoke of his captivity. All that I know is what I have pieced together over 50 years."
"I hardly spoke of the circumstances. I hardly said anything, that is, until I was interviewed by a high school student two years ago, and I never spoke publicly." He began work with the US Steel Company; with whom he would spend 43 years until his retirement, raised a family, and has continued to serve his church and community by volunteering. "I kept on working. I knew a lot and could have told, but I kept it to myself. I tried to keep my mind off of it."
Mr. Flowers has served his country with pride, dignity, and honor. He has continued to serve his community well into the present through various organizations -- a local ambulance service, and veterans groups, especially the EX-POW Pittsburgh Chapter -- including "Meals on Wheels" -- a group that prepares and delivers meals to homebound elderly. He has never sought reward or recognition. "In 1946, one day after work, the Army telephoned and asked if I wanted a public ceremony to present me with the Purple Heart, I thanked them, then insisted, just mail it."
In fact, he had never been recognized until recently, when I was fortunate to present him with an American flag flown in his honor over the US Capitol at the request of a local Congressman.
The history of World War II is composed of stories like Mr. Flowers's, stories of young men and women who embraced the nation's call to duty, sparking within them a flame of service and patriotism, a flame that would ignite their souls, compelling them from ordinary lives spent chasing the "American Dream," toward an extraordinary destiny -- preserving the free world and building its most powerful nation. As the interview concluded, I posed a simple, yet significant question; "Looking back, after all you had been through, would you still have served?" Almost immediately, he responds, "I would have been glad to do it again, in fact, after liberation I had asked a commander if I could enlist for at least three more years. The commander denied my request, responding: "Haven't you had enough of this place?" This was written by a student of history, an admirer who interviewed Corporal Alfred "Gene" Flowers, Veteran of World War II and Prisoner of War.