Leonard Rose – I Believe In Angels

 

By Laura Caplan

 

 

When you enter a hotel lobby during an American Ex-POW convention, you will find a sea of men with red vests and hats decorated with patches and pins showing their respective camps, military divisions, medals, and assorted other things. Among them, Leonard E. Rose, AKA “Rosie”, is the king. His unusual crown is his hat, which is covered with so many pins, it just

makes you happy immediately. He has a smile, a hug, and a vest to match.

 

Rosie could be just any guy out there in American who is standing next to you in the grocery store line. But he isn’t. He has a heart with as much gold in it as Fort Knox. Every veteran of Stalag Luft IV would agree. Rosie is Mr. Stalag Luft IV. For years he has worked ceaselessly on behalf of his comrades from his old prison camp. All of the former Kriegies look forward to his homemade Stalag Luft IV newsletters. He runs the Stalag Luft IV group single handedly, and although the members pay dues, Rosie often eats the difference between what comes in and what it costs him to do everything he does. He says that working for the men of Stalag Luft IV, and their families, is the best job he ever had and it pays the best too, He punctuates this statement by raising his hand in a zero sign, and adds that sometimes he even gets over time!

 

Rosie is the keeper of a master list of all the men who were in C Lager, which was compiled by Norwood M. Browder while he was in the camp. The list shows each barrack and room, with the names of the residents listed accordingly. Norwood Browder carried the list out with him on the march, and his brother Jack Browder gave Rosie a copy some years ago after Norwood passed away. Since then, Rosie has generously devoted his time to each and every vet, son, daughter, or grandchild who has called him for information about that list or anything else related to Stalag Luft IV, me included.

 

Rosie never met my father, Major Leslie Caplan, but his message to use charcoal as a remedy for dysentery had reached Rosie’s column on the death march. Over the years, many of the men of Luft IV had told Rosie stories about Dr. Leslie Caplan. So when he put together the hardbound memorial book commemorating the experiences of the vets of Stalag Luft IV in 1996, it featured both my father’s article “Death March Medic” and his war crimes testimony. Subsequently Rosie tracked down my mother and sent her a copy. She was astounded with pride and so was I. Seven years later, when I took both my mother and father to Arlington National Cemetery, Rosie was with us every step of the way from the first moment I called him to ask for his help in figuring out how to go about this, straight through to the check I received in donations Rosie raised to help defray my costs. He and the men of Luft IV offered their help as a memorial to both Drs. Leslie and Arline Caplan.

 

Rosie was a legend to me by the time I first met him in October 2002 at the first Stalag Luft IV reunion I ever attended. John Anderson had invited me and had prepared a speech about my father. John told me that he had written a good speech, but he wasn’t sure if he would be able to give it all, because if Rosie thought it was too long, he would give him a signal. After Rosie had given his announcements and moved into the speeches, he told everyone one of his classic remarks: “Remember that the mind can only take what the butt can stand”.  Rosie introduced John, sat down and John proceeded with his speech, which was full of considerable detail. I kept my eyes on Rosie and after some time, saw him sitting in his seat making what looked like small two-handed parallel karate chops. John promptly announced he’d gotten the signal, took his orders, and wound up his speech right then and there.

 

As the result of Rosie’s work, Stalag Luft IV is the only camp that has an organized and highly attended reunion every year during the national AXPOW Convention. There is no cost to attend. Rosie sends out postcards to all on his mailing list telling them they don’t have to register at the convention – all they have to do is walk in. And walk in they do. The Stalag Luft IV reunions are so lively that men who were in other camps attend just for fun. Each year, Rosie asks the vets of Luft IV to stand up for a roll call because, “The last time you saw that guy he may have weighed 112 pounds and had a lot of hair. Now he weighs 300 and doesn’t have any hair at all”. This is Rosie’s way of helping men who may not have seen each other since liberation to find each other again. How can you measure a contribution like that?

 

At the reunion in Arlington, Texas, 2004, I was in the lobby with my barbed wire sister Nancy Christensen one afternoon when Rosie waved us over. He was holding a tiny tape recorder and told us he had a song he wanted to play for us, which was his favorite. The song was the ABBA song, “I Have a Dream”. As the song progressed tears streamed down Rosie’s face. The lyrics were:

 

 

I have a dream, a fantasy

To help me through reality

And my destination makes it worth the while

Pushing through the darkness still another mile

I believe in angels

Something good in everything I see

I believe in angels

 

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Leonard Eugene Rose, of Vincennes, Indiana, joined the US. Army Air Force in February 1943. He flew 30 missions as the radio operator on a B24 out of Cerrignola, Italy, 15th Air Force, 459th Bomb Group, 758th Squadron. His B24 was hit on August 29, 1944 and he bailed out over Yugoslavia. He was held in solitary confinement for 16 days at Pestvideki Prison in Budapest, and then taken by 40 and 8 boxcar to Stalag Luft IV. He was among the last group to walk out of Stalag Luft IV February 6, 1945. They walked northwest across Poland and through Swinemunde into old Germany across the northern part to almost Hamburg. From there they turned south towards Hannover, then back east towards Berlin, then south again towards Magdeburg and on to Annaberg where he was liberated by the Russians on April 24, 1945. (If you are getting tired reading this, then just think about doing it.) Annaberg is just north of where the Russians, British and Americans met for the first time at Torgau. The Russians liberated approximately 3500 Allied POWs there that day. The next day the POWs set out to cross a pontoon bridge over the Elbe River – the Americans were on the other side – but the Russians would not let them cross. The Russians were holding them for ransom they hoped to extract from the Americans in exchange for their release.  When the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, the Russians were still holding the American POWs captive.

 

Rosie wrote about this:

 

On the evening of May 13, 1945, a group of Americans (how many we do not know) decided we were going to leave. We felt that they were going to take us to Russia and we did not want to go! Some guys got a long board and anchored it out the second story window in the back of the compound. Where they got it I do not know. Leave it to an American. There were no guards or lights on that side, and we threw all the bed mattresses out the window and over the 10 foot wall holding us in, and out we went. As fast as one would jump another was ready and to this day we do not know how many POWs got away.

 

It was dark and we walked west all night and with daylight approaching we were afraid that the Russians would catch us and take us back to Russia. And we did not want to go! We got into a pine forest and raked up a big pile of pine needles, and we crawled into the pile and slept all day. When it was dark we started walking again. On the morning of May 15, 1945, we came to the city of Wurzen, at the Mulde River. The Americans had a pontoon footbridge and we started to come across. One American soldier pointed his gun at me and hollered, ‘Halt, who goes there?” I threw my arms up over my head in the POW salute, and shouted back that we were Americans. I was blonde, blue eyed, and I only had one American dog tag and a German POW tag, so he thought I was a German. He asked me, “Who is the Home Run King in America”, and I told him Babe Ruth. Then he hollered,   “Well then get over here.“ We crossed over and I saw my freedom being returned for the first time since August 29, 1944. I had a foot long beard, and the Allies could smell us a mile away. I took three showers that first day. It was a day in heaven.

 

When I went overseas, I weighed 155 pounds and when I came home I weighed 92. We had walked between 6-700 miles, and never had a bath or brushed our teeth since we left Stalag Luft IV 97 days before.

 

Rosie came home and married Ella May (Williams) Rose, his true love; and had two children, Gina and Barry. Sometimes he worked three jobs: one as a steel analyst and production coordinator at the Ford Motor Corp. plant in Indianapolis, another at night doing income taxes, and a third one several nights a week at his golf club, which he did in exchange for free golf privileges. All this and on top of that he was always there for his family.

 

It was at the Ford plant where some unusual history was made. Rosie worked the day shift, and left a report for Harry Reuss, a cycle checker who worked nights, indicating what he needed for the next day’s shift. Each morning Rosie went into Harry’s office at 6:00 AM to go over his requests and make sure he had what he needed. Sometimes Harry hadn’t gotten it all worked out, so they ironed out the details. Things went on that way for 17 years. They didn’t talk much.

 

One morning Rosie noticed a newspaper picture of a B24 Liberator on Harry’s wall. He asked him why he had it and Harry replied, “I flew on a B24 out of Italy in WWII”. Rosie said, “So did I”. Harry went on saying, “I was shot down on my 3rd mission.” Rosie told him he had been shot down on his 30th mission. Harry replied, “I was in solitary confinement in the old prison in Budapest.”  And Rosie said, “So was I.” Harry said, “I went by 40 and 8 to Stalag Luft IV.” “So did I.” Harry elaborated, “I walked over 500 miles across Germany”, and with astonishment, Rosie said again, “So did I.” Until that day, they did not know anything about each other except work. After that Rosie said his job became 500% easier because Harry would always have the schedule worked out perfectly! They remained friends for the rest of their lives.

 

Thus began the Stalag Luft IV veterans group. It started with those two men in the Ford plant. Harry told Rosie about AXPOW and he joined. The two searched and found 35 men in Indiana from Stalag Luft IV. Rosie organized the first Stalag Luft IV reunion in 1980, and formed the Stalag Luft IV Association in 1982. Over the years, he built up his list of former Kriegies from 2 to 9000 names. That is almost all the Americans who were in Luft IV.

 

Rosie had never spoken about Stalag Luft IV except to his mother until the day he saw the B24 photo on Harry Reuss’s wall. When he had returned home, he tried as best as he knew how to tell his mother what he had been through, but although she didn’t doubt what he said, she could not really comprehend it. She asked him, “How could that have happened?” Then she said she felt bad for him. He told her adamantly that he didn’t want any sympathy; saying, “I came home. A lot of others didn’t.” From that day on, he never spoke to anyone about what happened to him as a German POW, not even his wife Ella.  He figured if he couldn’t convince his own mother as to what he had been through, then how could he convince anyone else? So he didn’t talk about being a prisoner of war for 30 years.

 

All of that changed that day in the Ford plant. Since then he hasn’t stopped talking about Luft IV. In fact, his wife Ella once told me that the only way she could get him to take out the trash was to write POW on it. Ella is one of the many wives who lived and breathed Stalag Luft IV for their entire married lives, even when they didn’t know anything about it. Whether he talked to her about what happened or not, she supported him through it all.  Like many others, Rosie had nightmares ever since his liberation. He courageously confronted his demons, with Ella by his side, when he returned to the site of Stalag Luft IV in a trip he organized for the vets in 1992.

 

Rosie told me about the trip in his hotel room in Nashville at the 2006 AXPOW Convention. He had asked me to come down to his room to help him with something for the Luft IV reunion. But when I arrived, he motioned for me to sit down next to him on the bed, and he began to tell me his story. Speaking of the first time he returned to Luft IV, he told me:

 

When I went back, the bus pulled in to Kiefheide by the railroad station. I couldn’t get off. The last time I was there, we got off the train and went straight to Stalag Luft IV. There was no return trip. So when I saw the train station again, I couldn’t get off the bus. Everyone got off except me. Well one guy came and asked me why I wasn’t getting off. I told him, “The first time I got off here, I never got back on.” So he said to me, “ Rosie, my wife is with me and there is no way some SOB is going to keep her from getting back on – so don’t worry.” So I got off the bus.

 

Sometimes I thought Luft IV was just a bad dream that never really happened. How could that have really happened? How could I have survived that? But when I saw those pine trees, and the opening between them, they looked just the same as I remembered them. I knew I had really been there. That trip healed me. The Poles had put up the monument there. The Polish Old Guard was there to honor us.

 

After Rosie returned from the trip, he and the vets raised $15,000 just like that for the Poles who live near the site of Stalag Luft IV. It’s a poor agricultural area where they still use horses for work in the fields. They have wood stoves to heat their homes. The Kriegies used the $15,000 to buy computers and scanners for the local school. Those American fliers helped to liberate the Poles from the Nazis. When they marched out of Luft IV, the Poles who saw them thought they were being taken to be gassed. Years later they found out many of them had made it through. These fliers were their heroes. Imagine how the Poles must have felt when their schools filled up with the latest technology for their kids as a gift from the former POWs.

 

Rosie returned to Stalag Luft IV accompanied by other vets and their families on five trips he organized. He made his last trip in May 2005, the 60th anniversary of his liberation and the end of World War II. On this trip, the Polish Old Guard honored Rosie and the other vets with a special dinner complete with eight bottles of Kentucky bourbon. This must have cost them a fortune to buy. The Poles had vodka for themselves. The bourbon was just for the Americans.

 

As I sat with Rosie in Nashville, astonished at his stories, I too wished I had a good bottle of Kentucky bourbon for him. When he was done talking, he told his son Barry, who had been sitting in the room listening quietly, that he was ready for something to eat. That was that. A little talk. Yet a moment of total transformation. That’s Leonard Rose.

 

Later that night, Rosie said before the crowd at the Stalag Luft IV reunion that if he ever were to write his life story he would title it “Oh Lord, Why Me? I Believe In Angels”. I thought to myself, so do I. Without a doubt everyone else there did too.

 

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Ella May and Leonard Rose

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                     © Laura Caplan  December 2006