I’ve spent a good chunk of time lately in Northern Virginia where one of my neighbors is a 90-year-old former prisoner of war named William Tippins. He stopped by one day last week and asked me if I wanted to go to Ft. Belvoir, specifically to the Base Exchange, or BX, a shopping mall of sorts anchored by a store with Macy’s-like products and a Target-like layout. Keen to check out the bargains and hear more of his story, I said yes.
During World War II, Tippins was in a foxhole in Anzio, Italy, when a mortar shell exploded, knocked him unconscious, and sliced through his lower abdomen, leaving his intestines hanging out. When Tippins came to, a German soldier was standing above him.
“For you the war is over,” said the soldier, who gave Tippins a choice. The soldier could put him out of his misery or let him walk three kilometers to the nearest aid station. Tippins chose to walk.
Periodically pouring water on the wound, as the German soldier had told him to do, Tippins survived the trek. He was then taken to a German field hospital near Rome, where, he said, “they put my intestines back in and sewed me up.”
A couple of days after the surgery, Tippins tried to escape. He was caught and placed in solitary confinement at Stalag VII-A in Mooseburg, Germany. Unable to keep down the rations of bread they gave him, his health rapidly deteriorated, and prison officials sent him to an aid station in a town called Fuerstenwalde outside of Berlin.
Tippins was telling me this story, one of stunning bravery, gumption and grit, as he was driving along back roads from Springfield, VA, to Ft. Belvoir. When we pulled into the BX parking lot, he put the story on hold while we went into the Macy’s-like, Target-like store and looked around. I eyeballed the bargains while he, an apparent regular, chatted with a few familiar faces before we went back to the car. Once there, he promptly picked up where he left off — in Fuerstenwalde.
Her name, he said, was Ursula, but he didn’t know that at the time. All he knew is that she had rosy cheeks, tended to his wounds, and on the down-low, brought him extra food. He, in return, gave her a nickname – Pinky. And that was that. She brought him food, he called her Pinky, and the war determined everything else.
Over the next several months, Tippins tried to escape two more times, each time landing in solitary confinement for three weeks to a month, but he prevailed and was among those liberated by Russian troops at the end of April 1945. The Russians planned to send him home by way of Odessa, but he would have to wait three months, so once again Tippins “escaped.”
Traveling only by night in Russian occupied areas, he eventually made his way to one of the resettlement camps for American prisoners of war in and around Le Havre in northern France. The nine camps were named after cigarette brands, and Tippins, as one might guess, ended up in Camp Lucky Strike.
From there he went home to Florida, but soon grew restless and decided to reenlist and return to Germany to look for the woman who had risked her life to bring him food. The Army, however, said no. It would not allow prisoners of war to go back to Germany for fear of retaliation, but the Air Force had no such policy, so Tippins enlisted and — as luck would have it — ended up in the right place at the right time.
The Air Force assigned him to a town called Furstenfeldbruck where he worked with German police who helped resettle refugees displaced by the war. Furstenfeldbruck was roughly 400 miles from where he had met Pinky, yet one fortuitous day she walked through the door of the local police station looking for assistance.
Tippins said he had a hunch it was Pinky when he saw her but wasn’t sure until he glanced at her ID card and saw the name of her hometown — Furstenwalde. He then leaned over and said her nickname. Stunned, she bolted up out of her chair, he recalled, and seven months later they were married.
Tippins and Pinky were together for 57 years until her death in 2003. He now lives with the oldest of his three children in Springfield, where he’s been my neighbor for much of the past eight months as I’ve meandered back and forth from North Carolina to Virginia trying to decide where to live.
In that time, Tippins has been a living example of a powerful message about following your dreams, persistence, and taking risks. It’s a message he imparts every single day, often through the telling of his story, but also with his pleasantly determined, upbeat demeanor.
Getting to know him has served as the perfect bookend to my vagabonding ways. When I showed up in Springfield at the start of my journey, I met a man from Burkina Faso, who in the telling of his story reminded me that no matter where you go, there you are. Now, thanks to Tippins, as I get ready to go back from whence I came – back to Raleigh – I go with renewed determination to take a few risks and follow my dreams.