By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN When World War II veteran Wally Grotz of Delano was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft IV Nazi camp near Koszalin, Poland, he wasn’t sure if he’d survive, much less be honored for his sacrifice 60 years later.
Little did he know, that when he and his wife, Mary, would visit the former camp in 2006, a weighty “thank you” would await them.
“We were on a tour with other POWs,” Wally said. “They had a banquet for us, and gave us chicken, ham, and all the vodka you wanted to drink.”
The Polish governor, the mayor of Koszalin, and a member of the home guard were part of the festivities.
“They all talked on one subject appreciation,” Wally said.
Big and bronze
The biggest “thank you” wouldn’t come until the following day, however, during a ceremony dedicating the 243-acre former campsite as a Polish War Memorial.
It was there that Polish artist Zygmunt Wujek presented Wally with a bronze-plated cast iron bust of an American airman, an exact replica of the statue dedicated at Stalag Luft IV in Poland.
As one of the few living Eighth Air Force POW survivors of the prison camp, Wally was selected to take the statue back to America, as a token of appreciation to the veterans of the Eighth Air Force, all veterans, and the people of the United States.
The gift was given on behalf of the Pomerania region of Poland, for the role of the Eighth Air Force and the US veterans in freeing the area from Nazi Germany.
“This is the second country to show appreciation like this,” Wally said. “The first was France, with the Statue of Liberty.”
Poland to America
Getting the 133-pound statue home was not a light task, however. Shipping arrangements and museum plans fell through, and the statue remained in Poland.
“My neighbor, Tom Redmond, called Michele Bachmann’s office, unbeknownst to me,” Wally said, adding that a representative from her office helped bring the statue home.
Wally’s oldest son, Jim, whose workplace has an account with UPS, also helped. They were able to make contact with officials in Poland to arrange for UPS shipping, and the bronze statue finally arrived a few weeks ago.
FOX 9 News was on site as Wally picked it up in Minneapolis, and the story aired Oct. 8.
The bust was packed in a green wooden box, with the words “do not toss” painted on the cover in English and Polish.
“One person can’t even lift it,” Wally laughed.
Delano Legion display
For now, the statue is on display at the Delano American Legion.
It will also be unveiled at the Veterans Day program at Delano High School Friday, Nov. 11 at 9:30 a.m.
After the program, Wally and Mary will deliver the statue to its permanent home at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Pooler, GA, near Savannah.
Wally didn’t personally know the man whose face appears on the statue, but he does know that he was in the same compound.
“There were about 2,200 of us,” he said.
Prisoner of war
Wally’s B-24J bomber was shot down over Germany Nov. 26, 1944. He and his crew bailed out of their plane at 22,000 feet, only to be captured and taken to a POW camp once they reached the ground.
He and the other prisoners endured terrible conditions, receiving only tea, dehydrated cabbage soup, and bread as their sole meal throughout the day, according to a letter from Michele Bachmann’s office.
“Many were so starved they were too weak to even get out of bed to be counted in the morning roll calls,” the letter stated. “Those airmen who didn’t die were beaten, stabbed by bayonets, whipped, and shot.”
“On Feb. 6, 1945, we marched out of camp,” Wally said. “Our group did a 520-mile march. We slept in barns, in tents, and outside. Whatever they wanted us to do, we did.”
They traveled through Swinemünde (a city and seaport on the Baltic Sea) and Peenemünde (an area that was highly involved in the production of the V2 rocket).
The soldiers were taken to a place to shower Wally’s second shower in about six months.
While he was there, he distinctly remembers seeing a huge pile of clothing, and a mound of shoes about 6 feet high.
Later on, they discovered they had been in a death camp built by Nazi Germany, where people were discarded, and possessions were spared.
“We didn’t know at the time,” Wally said. “I couldn’t figure out why there were all those shoes.”
Wally’s group marched on, with plans to be held hostage in Norway. However, two days before they arrived, they were set free.
After Wally came back to the US, he served at the Delano Post Office for 34 years.
Now, Wally is one of the only living POWs in the area.
He was only 18 when he went to war, drafted seven days after his graduation from Delano High School in 1943.
“People might think history is boring, but history is quite a thing,” Wally said. “It puts things together, so we don’t repeat it.”
Wally said he hopes Americans will protect and treasure the freedom they have.
“Freedom is not free,” he said. “You don’t know what freedom is until it is taken away.”