Telegram POW copy

On Memorial Day, An Old Briefcase Reveals a Remarkable History

Roughly fifteen years ago I found a nondescript briefcase in the basement of my mom’s house with a sticker just under the handle that read, “My War.” 

Inside the briefcase was an amazingly well-preserved archive of letters, military paperwork, newspaper clipping, sketches and photos from my grandfather’s service in World War II. At the time, I spent months pouring over the collection, and carefully scanned in every page. 

My grandfather, Al Atkins, was shot down over Germany in November of 1944. He was able to parachute to safety before being taken as a prisoner of war. The collection of his military papers includes the original Western Union telegrams his wife received when his plane was shot down and when he was confirmed as a prisoner of war. Those two are dated three months apart.

Imagine what his family must have felt during those three months. The immense weight of the unknown. 

Four months later another telegram announced that he had been freed, and was returning to the United States. There are other telegrams, from family members sending warm wishes and support, and from the wives of other soldiers, asking for any information on their lost loved ones.

Prior to enlisting in the air force, my grandfather was a commercial artist and the briefcase is filled with his sketches. There are red cross newsletters and prisoner of war bulletins, insurance paperwork and photographs. 

2014 marks 70 years since he was shot down. On this Memorial Day holiday, I’m grateful I have these amazing documents to revisit and remember my grandfather through.

As I explored the briefcase fifteen years ago, I found an outline for a book my grandfather had hoped to write. Reading over all these notes, it is clear that for my grandfather the story was not the war, it was the relationships that were built and destroyed, the people and families who were connected and lost. Someday, I hope to complete what my grandfather started, though it will probably be online and in a format he never could have imagined.

For now, here are the clippings from the Newark Star Ledger and the Newark Evening News when Sgt. Atkins was captured and when he was freed: 

war clippings

Telegram POW copy

*Please don’t repost these images without my permission.

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