The picture accompanying this story includes me. This story is not remotely about me, but I chose that photo because I wanted to share with you how rare it is that I ask an interview subject to take a picture with me. I was taught that when on a story, I’m a journalist, not a fan. We don’t take sides. We don’t cheer in the press box. We don’t applaud, and we do not ask for souvenirs. When I interviewed Sgt. Lou Fowler, I intended to follow those rules, and at first I did. When he walked away, it hit me that some things are bigger than the rules, and I ran after him and asked him if he would pose for a picture with me. If you’ll take time to read his story, I think you’ll understand why I broke the rules.
Sgt. Fowler was 18 years old in 1942. World War II was raging and the draft was in effect, but Sgt. Fowler and his twin brother did not need to be drafted. Both volunteered as soon as they turned 18. With their older brother already in the Army, Sgt. Fowler’s brother joined the Marines, while Sgt. Fowler volunteered for the Army Air Corps (predecessor to the Air Force). He explained to me that he did not want to serve with his brothers because he knew they would focus on protecting each other. He also “always wanted to fly.” Fly he did.
He was deployed to Europe and served as a gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber called the “Virgin Annie.” He and the other nine men in his crew went up 13 times from a base in Italy to attack Axis territory, and 13 times they came home. On March 19, 1944, they did not make it back. After completing their mission, the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Austria. “There was a hole you could have driven a car through” in the side of the plane, Sgt. Fowler said. Seven of the crew died in the explosion as the plane was hit. Sgt. Fowler was wounded, but with the other two survivors helping him, managed to strap on a parachute and escape.
His story from there sounds like a movie script, though perhaps one too fantastic even for Hollywood. He and his comrades hid in the Austrian mountains and eventually connected with resistance fighters, attacking Germans from the midst of hostile territory until they were captured. Sgt. Fowler spent 13 months as a prisoner of war. He heard the screams as Holocaust victims died at Auschwitz. He was tortured there. As the Allies advanced, he and other prisoners were forced to march more than 500 miles into Germany. He watched comrades die along the way, as the Nazi soldiers shot anyone who could not keep the pace. One of the Germans told him they had orders to execute every single prisoner if the Allies caught up with them. Fowler was a condemned man.
Knowing he had nothing to lose, he and two other prisoners concocted an escape plan. One of the other two spoke German, and in darkness was able to confuse a guard long enough for Fowler and the third man to attack and kill the guard. The German-speaking prisoner took the guard’s uniform and marched Sgt. Fowler and the third man out of camp. They hid in ditches and anywhere else they could find during the following day, then marched again at night. They escaped on April 25, 1945. They had no map, but they knew the Americans and British were pushing forward from the west, so they followed the sun.
The following night, they heard the sound of tanks, and as they tried to hide, they were spotted. Loud voices ordered them to step out into the open, hands up, and when they saw guns pointed at them, Sgt. Fowler said he was sure he was dead. Then, in the lights of the vehicles, they saw the uniforms of the soldiers who confronted them, and the American flags on their soldiers. They had encountered the 104th Infantry Division, and they were saved. Tense moments remained. The prisoners were in rags and had no proof that they were American. One soldier from the 104th, however, took a closer look and saw that they were barely more than skeletons. Sgt. Fowler had lost 87 pounds as a prisoner. Convinced, the soldiers of the 104th took them to safety.
Sgt. Fowler still has shrapnel in his shoulder from the last flight of the “Virgin Annie.” He would not speak about his experiences in Europe for more than 40 years after coming home. He did not keep in touch with other soldiers. Even in 2015, when he was kind enough to speak to me, he cried. He didn’t cry when speaking of his own pain and torture. He cried for those he was not able to save, particularly at Auschwitz.
He does tell his story now. As his generation, the one so many call the greatest generation, began to grow old, he said “I felt it was my duty to tell people what it was really like, how it really happened.”
Duty drove Sgt. Lou Fowler to go through hell so we could be free, and so the vast majority of us will never know the suffering he endured. Duty drives every veteran, past and present, to put their lives on the line for us. I’m just a guy who tells stories. I can’t possibly find adequate words to thank Sgt. Fowler and every single veteran for that service. Those words don’t exist. But I will say thank you. Midlands Anchor says thank you. To each and every one of you, your country says thank you. If ever we can do anything for you, we are here.