Geoff Larcom: Recalling the life of a World War II hero
They are precious stories, and they are slipping away from us as the gallant men and women who lived the remarkable details of World War II leave us one by one. With pride and love, family members savored and recalled the life of Fred Atkinson, a former Manchester resident who died of congestive heart failure July 18 at age 89.
Atkinson, a former superintendent of Manchester Schools, enjoyed a 30-year career in public education. After World War II, he had intended to attend business school at Harvard and had been accepted. But something over there spurred him to a career directed toward helping kids, said his daughter, Mary Shackleton, who now lives in Interlochen.“The war experience reset his values about what was important,” Shackleton said this past week.
Atkinson was flying a B-25 bomber over North Africa in February of 1943 when his aircraft was shot down. He was thrown out of the plane, but survived, along with his co-pilot, suffering mainly broken bones. The rest of the crew, including a photographer for Life Magazine, was killed in the crash landing, family members recall.
Atkinson was taken prisoner and held captive for more than two years at the Stalag Luft 3, a German prison camp designed to house American and British airmen only. Atkinson escaped once, but was recaptured. One time, he was forced to go on a march that lasted two days and nights to avoid Russian soldiers.
At the camp, prisoners devised a code imbedded in letters to their family that informed the U.S. government of various German activities, Shackleton noted.
She said her father became more open about his war experiences the older he got, noting, among other things, that their German captors were not much better off than the prisoners at this particular camp. Indeed, the airmen-only camps were known as being far more civilized than other German prisoner camps.
He was finally freed when General George Patton came and liberated the camp in 1945, Shackleton recalled. The wartime ordeal demanded a form of quiet courage, bravery and perspective, family members say. “To go what he went through . He was a really tough man, “ said one of his sons, John Atkinson, a retired Ann Arbor police detective lieutenant who currently teaches at Washtenaw Community College.
Atkinson returned from the war in 1945 and married his co-pilot’s sister, June, a union that was to last 63 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Lawrence College in Appleton, Wis., and then a master’s degree from Michigan State University.
Atkinson served as head of Manchester Schools from 1952-56, part of a 30-year career in public education that also included stints in Webberville, Clawson, Utica and then to a larger school district in Bloomington, Minn.
John Atkinson, who served nearly 30 years on the Ann Arbor police force, and his sister recall that their father loved Manchester. John remembers fondly skating on a nearby pond and biking to the dentist’s office downtown at a very young age.
After retiring, Atkinson moved to Leland, northwest of Traverse City, where he remained with his wife in retirement. He did work for the Leland Public Schools and drove seniors to appointments as part of ShareCare, among other volunteer activities.
He was an avid golfer and over the years made four holes in one on the tricky 18th hole at the Leland Country Club. Sports Illustrated noted the feat in its Faces In The Crowd section.
To the end, Atkinson kept his sense of humor and the determination that marked his war days, John Atkinson said. As recently as July 5, Atkinson joined John and several grandsons for several holes of golf at Leland Country Club, wheeling around an oxygen tank as he putted.
He is survived by John, another son, Fred; his wife, and two daughters, Mary, and Julie McNeilly, of Clare. A memorial service is to be held Saturday at the Leland Methodist Church.