All my life, I have been amazed with the Holocaust, but never understood why. A visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., followed by a phone call to my Mamaw, Della Bowers, would start me on a journey that would help provide an answer to my amazement.The phone call was between my Dad, Jerry Bowers, and my Mamaw. He told her of our family visit to the museum and it was her response that fueled my desire for more information. She said,
“Well, you know your Daddy helped get those people out of those chicken coops and things like that.”
Reality hit me. Was my loving grandfather really just the Army cook he told us about, or did he play an active part in liberating Europe during World War II?
I could not wait to begin putting the pieces of this puzzle together; my unexplained interest, a gruesome period of history, and my family’s part in that history.
I set out with an ultimate goal of finding out what concentration camp my Papaw, William Thomas Bowers, also known as Bill or Ducky, helped liberate. My journey into history would be filled with ups and downs, tears of sadness and joy and countless emotions.
Research took me to the records of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Personnel Records Center and a host of other online archives.
Papaw, it turns out, was a member of the Big Red One, Company C. He was an anti-aircraft gunner.
The Big Red One, actually the First Infantry Division, was recorded to have liberated Ravensbruck, a subcamp of Flossenburg.
The activity of this camp, as at all camps, was terrible but it was a work camp and not a “death camp” like the infamous Auschwitz.
The Big Red One was one of the biggest infantry units in the United States Army and there is no count on the number of deaths of Nazi soldiers and supporters for which its soldiers were responsible. An anti-aircraft gunner would have mowed down countless planes, buildings and other large structures in the fight for the freedom of those the Nazis considered the “inferior race.”
I remember once asking my Papaw,
“When you were in Germany, did you ever see Hitler?”
His reply was short, simple yet vague.
“I saw so many people over there,”
was all he said. I was young when I asked the question but old enough to know not to push someone who had been in war.
Now that I have learned of his place in the war, I have a better understanding of why he did not want to talk about it. Yet, I never saw traces of the horrible memories he must have had from that war.
As the baby of ten grandchildren, I was especially close to my grandparents. I spent many nights at their home with my cousins, rode through the mountains where they grew up and stayed with them when I was too sick for school.
Papaw was a good, kind, loving man. He provided well for his family, was an elder of the McCaysville Church of Christ and led many people to the Lord. He set an example through which no one would have known the horrific thins he saw and experienced in Germany.
We all grew older, still spending weekends together, going to church and visiting as a family. Age caught up with Papaw far too soon. After being plagued with health problems, and hurt in a horrible car accident, Alzheimer’s disease attached him.
Forced into a nursing facility, things did not look good for him. I was 21 and expecting my first child in four months. I prayed my Papaw would defeat the odds so he could meet his great grandchild.
That prayer was answered shortly after when Connor was born on August 17, 2006. He had his first visit with his great grandpa and I was able to capture the moment with a picture. I was blessed to lean over and place my baby boy in my Papaw’s arms. Tears of joy flow, even today as I remember how overwhelmed by that moment I was.
Papaw had defied the odds, much same as those he helped liberate form the Nazis defied the odds more than 60 years earlier.
Papaw passed away January 24, 2010. The emotional toll was terrible. While I know he is in a better place, I still miss him. Finding out about his service in World War II has brought me closer to him.
Almost a year, to the day, after my sweet Papaw passed, my second son, Abram, was born. While he never, physically, met his Great Grandfather, it is amazing at the mannerisms that Abram shares with him. When Abram gets excited, he walks with his feet turned outward, like Papaw did (hence the nickname “Ducky”), he shuffles his feet when he’s playing, much like the way Papaw did when he would play with us grandchildren, Abram even shares some of the same favorite snacks as Papaw, such as circus peanuts and orange candy slices. When he is bored, he lines up and stacks coins, much like just like Papaw did once his Alzheimer’s disease had set in and began to take a toll on him mentally. While he never knew him, I plan on educating him on what a great man his Great Grandfather was so that he, too, can be led by the great example he was to my family.
Now, with the knowledge I have, I want to travel to that camp and walk the steps he walked. Then, I will have more memories to share with my children and family so that the story of Bill Bowers can live on for generations to come.
History repeats itself. Our children must be warned of the horrors of genocide. More importantly, they must hear of the brave men who fought those that created this horror.
Rest in peace, Bill Bowers, you are loved and missed each day that passes and I look forward to seeing you again someday.