By Matt Kane
DELANO “We just hope someday World War II won’t end up as one line in a history book.”
This is the wish of Delano resident Walter Grotz, a World War II veteran and former prisoner of war (POW).
There’s no way to tell what will be said about World War II, which involved the United States from 1941 to 1945, in future textbooks, but sometimes, textbooks don’t tell the true story anyway.
Like how Grotz served in Germany with the 445th Bomb Group, 703 Squadron as a Tech. Sgt. in the Army Air Corp. And how the B-24J Bomber he was aboard as a flight engineer was shot down over Germany Nov. 26, 1944, forcing him and the rest of the crew to bail out at 22,000 feet. And about how, on an injured leg, he marched for three months under the watch of German guards before being liberated May 2, 1945.
Grotz has his own story written in an autobiographical account, so no matter what is said in a history book, Grotz’s family and whomever reads his memoir will know what happened during WWII.
The story of Grotz’s survival has inspired many, and recently an Orono High School graduate took this inspiration a step further than most had in the past.
That Orono student is Casey Olson, a longtime family friend of Grotz.
For a year, Olson picked Grotz’s memory, listened to countless stories of his service in the Army, and read his own accounts.
“She was just plain interested. It surprised me she was interested in my story,” Grotz said. “
By April, Olson had written her own piece about Grotz, titled “Setting the Bar,” and entered it in the Behind the Barbed Wire 16th annual Essay Contest, which was put on by the Minnesota chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War.
“He put himself out there for his country. My theme is setting the bar. It takes someone to set the bar,” she explained. “The stories of what he endured are amazing.”
Olson’s essay was dated April 4. On April 17, a letter, written by contest chairperson Renee M. Miller, was sent to Olson informing her that “Setting the Bar” was chosen as the winner of the All Agostino Award. Accompanying the award was a $500 check.
“It’s quite emotional. It did bring a tear to my eye when she read it to me,” Grotz said. “When she told me she was a winner, it hit me in the heart.”
Olson and the other winners read their essays at the State Ex-POW Convention May 14 during a luncheon at the Kelly Inn in St. Cloud.
“When listening to the essays by the other winners, it hit the students so emotionally they couldn’t finish reading the essays,” Grotz said of the convention.
“It was emotional,” Olson said of the convention. “I had a hard time holding back the tears. All the stories were heart-felt.”
Grotz had told Olson about the contest, and Olson, who will study visual communications at St. Norbert’s College in De Pere, Wis., spent her spring break writing “Setting the Bar,” which she says defines what a hero really is.
“I used to be able to open a dictionary to find the most accurate definition of a hero, but this no longer holds true,” begins Olson’s essay. “In the past I could rely on simple words to fill the meaning of what a hero is, but that basic simplicity no longer satisfies me.”
“My goal wasn’t to write a biography, but to recognize him as a hero in the community,” Olson said recently while sitting beside Grotz at his kitchen table.
In her essay, Olson wrote: “Close to a year ago I got the opportunity to sit down with an Ex-Prisoner of War and old family friend, Walter Grotz, better known as Wally. I soon realized that he met the very qualifications the dictionary had for the definition of a hero, ‘a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities,’ but I also realized he was much more than that; he was those words personified.”
Olson lives with her parents, David and Merrile Olson (both Delano graduates), in Maple Plain, but has known Grotz for a long time. Their casual relationaship started when Olson was a little girl visiting Grotz and his wife, Mary, with her grandparents, John and Mary Olson, of Delano. Olson and Grotz always enjoyed their friendly and, for Olson, often informative visits. Olson said the relationship hit a new level during their serious talks about Grotz’s time in World War II.
“I knew him when I was younger, but hearing his story matured our relationship. It personalized our relationship,” she said. “Anytime you sit down and talk to him, he has something interesting to say.”
“Unlike my dictionary at home, Wally was able to give me real life stories and share with me some of his toughest life experiences.” Olson wrote in her essay. “Through these stories, I was quick to realize the immense capabilities that we as humans are gifted with and circumstances we are able to get through. More important than what a hero is, is what a hero does and to me that is setting the bar, showing others that they too can accomplish acts of courage and be heroic in their own communities.”