Traverse City Record-Eagle

Reflections

October 24, 2010

Family shares tale of its POW

Jean Roehr was 8 years old the first time she saw her Uncle Fred Atkinson. By that time, she thought he was some kind of god.

Atkinson spent most of World War II as a prisoner of war.

The family talked about him all the time. He was on everyone's mind. Her grandmother, Florence, or "Mimi" (pronounced Mimmie), as the grandchildren called her, was always busy putting together Red Cross parcels for him and other POWs.

Jean was excited about meeting him, maybe a little shy, as she opened the door and walked into her grandparents' living room and saw Fred sitting in a wing chair.

"I never saw such an ugly man in my life — he was so thin, he looked awful," she said.

Most of Roehr's memories of World War II are what she calls "snatches" of things told to her by her grandparents or Fred's older siblings — his sister Arleyn Atkinson Rosenquist (Jean's mother) and brother Bob.

One of her "real memories" is the box her grandmother always kept in the pantry to put food in for the Red Cross parcels.

"I remember her telling me that more POWs would have died in the war if it hadn't been for the Red Cross packages. Mimi never forgot that and gave to the Red Cross for the rest of her life."

It was Mimi's scrapbook, discovered by her granddaughter at a family cottage, that provided most of the insight to Atkinson's experiences. He didn't talk about it much.

She recalls Mimi's story about a cryptic message Fred sent in a letter that somehow cleared censors: "New boy in camp, Conway, father lawyer, in Milwaukee."

Her grandmother immediately called every Conway in the Milwaukee phone book to see if any had a son who was missing in action. Finally, she found the young man's mother and told her about Fred's letter and that her son was alive and in the same camp as Fred.

Conway, as it turned out, was able to escape from the POW camp and make it to the French underground. He and Fred would meet again — on the first ship transporting troops and POWs back to the United States.

Jean also can't forget the story Mimi told her just before Fred got home. Her grandmother knew Fred was coming home, but not when. She was listening to the radio when the program was interrupted for a news report. The first ship of returning POWs had arrived in New York and Mimi said she "just knew" Fred was on that boat. Right then, the phone rang. It was Conway, who had just gotten off the ship.

"You did my mom a favor and I'll do you one," Conway said. Fred was on the boat but would be delayed getting off by "repatriation" paperwork.

Jean clearly recalls the reaction of her grandfather, whose nickname was Boo-Boo, the day they found out when they were to pick up Fred at the Milwaukee train station.

"I'd never seen a fat man jumping as much as he was," she said. "He kept jumping up and down and saying, 'Fred's home! Fred's home! Fred's home!' When my father took him to the train station, Boo-Boo leaped out of the car and practically ran to the train station a block away."

A few weeks after he got home, Fred asked his mother to take him to Michigan to visit Jack Hartley, the co-pilot and fellow POW who had survived the B-25 crash and 27 months in POW camps with him. Fred met Jack's sister, June, on that trip. They fell in love and married in September. About a year later, Jack married June's college roommate, Pat. The two couples remained lifelong friends.

Fred went back to college on the GI Bill and earned a master's degree at Michigan State University that launched him into a long career as a school superintendent in Michigan and Minnesota.

He and June raised four children — John born in 1947, Mary in 1945, Julie in 1954 and Fred in 1957. They moved to Leland about 20 years ago when he retired.

In 2008, Mary, husband Mike Shackleton and June took Fred to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Several veterans, soldiers and others asked if he was a veteran and talked to him. One young man home on leave from Iraq saluted him and thanked him for his service.

"It moved him to tears," Mary said of the memorial and recognition.

Fred, who had suffered heart problems for a few years, died July 18 last year in his favorite chair, holding June's hand. He was 89. They had been married 64 years. June now lives in assisted living in Northport Highlands but still has their home of the past 20 years in Leland.

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