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.