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Former POW, Chief William Tippins

Chief William Tippins  in Air Force  uniform

Chief William Tippins in Air Force uniform

A Former POW’s Twist of Fate:
A few acts of kindness led to a long life of happiness

Sometimes life’s worst moments lead to the best things in life. At least that was the case for former WWII POW, William Tippins, who receives his care at the Washington DC VA Medical Center.

In February 1944, as part of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the 20-year old Pfc was blown from his foxhole in Anzio, Italy. When he came to, a German soldier was standing over him speaking in perfect English, “For you the war is over." Tippins who had received a severe abdominal wound, thought the German would shoot him on sight. But to his surprise the German gave him a choice, "I can kill you now or you can try to walk to the aid station, three kilometers away." The German soldier was actually an American from St. Louis, Missouri who had been visiting family in Germany when the war broke out.

Opting of course to walk, the soldier filled Tippins' canteen instructing him to pour water on the intestines protruding from the wound every ten minutes. He also gave the escorting soldier Tippins' gun containing one bullet and instructions to shoot Tippins if he couldn't make it to the aid station. Tippins used the water as instructed and survived the walk over rough terrain He was later transferred to a German field hospital near Rome.

Although still badly wounded, he managed to escape from the hospital and met with a priest who gave him some food and a blanket but wouldn't let him stay. He was recaptured 72 hours later after a farmer found him sleeping in a barn. He was then sent to Stalag VII-A in Mooseburg, Germany where they stenciled his clothing with a black diamond and a red circle, marking him a former escapee and/or troublemaker.

While in Stalag VII-A, he was unable to keep down his prisoner food rations and his weight dropped dramatically. His health continued to deteriorate, landing him in a field hospital in Fuerstenwalde, Germany.

In the hospital, he met a young volunteer. She spoke no English and he spoke no German, but they struck up a secret friendship nonetheless. He nicknamed her “Pinky” because the German winter caused her cheeks to stay a permanent bright pink color. At great risk to herself, Pinky began smuggling him white bread from home. It must have been some really good bread, because after only a few days of it he regained his strength and was transferred to Luckenwald POW camp.

At Luckenwald, he escaped again, but weighing only 103 pounds, his appearance evidently drew too much attention and he was taken back into custody. They took away his boots and placed him in solitary confinement where he remained until the Russians liberated the camp in April 1945.

The Russians were paid for every POW returned and he was told it would be about eight months before he would be repatriated. Tippins had had enough of confinement, so he found some wire cutters and escaped again - this time from the Russians.

It took him about three weeks to travel the 65-70 miles to the Mulde River. He slept in homes vacated by the Germans and only traveled at night. He reached the Americans two days before Germany's final surrender.

After returning home, he tried to block out the bad memories and move forward, but he quickly became bored and frustrated. He never forgot the German girl with the rosy cheeks who risked her life to help keep him alive. He joined the Air Force and was sent back to Germany as an investigator for the Office of Special Operations.

He was working with the German Police who were managing the hotels for refugees. One night, he thought he recognized a young lady who came in looking for a room. He walked up behind her and said "Pinky". She recognized him instantly although he wasn’t sure how, he looked a lot different from the ill, bearded, 100-pound POW he had been two years before. They hugged each other and talked for hours. Up until then, he hadn't realized how much of the German language he had learned.

After several months of dating, he and Pinky were married. Some things are just meant to be and being a POW is the price he paid to meet his soul mate.

They raised a family and he served the Air Force for another 20 years. He retired in 1965 as a Chief Master Sergeant, the highest enlisted rank in the Air Force. For 57 years he called her Pinky-- until her death in 2003.

One time, A Stars and Stripes reporter asked him if he had any advice for Soldiers and Airmen coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. He replied, "Just try to block out the bad memories best you can so you can move forward."

Evidently, he follows his own advice. Despite William Tippins' brutal war experiences, his life was full of joy and love with his Pinky.