A Hero Remembered

Lynn Sewell sat by her father's bed. He was dying. His deaf ears could not hear her sobs. For hours she clutched his hands and stared through his blind eyes into her father's soul, remembering the good times they had and trying to imagine the horrors her daddy had suffered through. Owen Collins had many battles in his life, but he never lost sight of what was really important to him, his family and his friends.

On the day after he died, Lynn went back to her father's room to gather his belongings. She rarely saw the children of her father's roommate, who had also been in the latter stages of Alzheimer's Disease. Lynn and the woman began to talk. She mentioned that her father had been a prisoner of war during World War II. The roommate's daughter responded, "So was my father." "My dad was at Moorsburg," Lynn said. Lynn never expected what the lady's response would be. You see, the man who had lived in the same nursing home room for three months with Owen Collins was a prisoner of war, but he was a German soldier imprisoned in an English P.O.W. camp.

Lynn wasn't surprised. For years Owen Collins rarely talked about the war. Although he suffered much in the camps, Collins never held a grudge against his German captors, who were "pretty good" to the prisoners. Though his rations were scant and tasteless, he did say that the guards were older men with young sons of their own and their meals were not much better than his. "He always saw the best in people," Lynn fondly remembered. One sign of his times in the camp came when it was time to feed his dogs. "He always overfed the dogs because he was hungry in the prison camp and he could not stand to think that they may be hungry," Sewell added.

Owen Collins in camp. (4th from left.)

Owen Kitchens Collins, the baby boy of Bryan Lee Collins and Laura Kitchens, was born in Dexter, Georgia on February 28, 1915. The Collins family moved to Sandersville and eventually to Decatur, Georgia, where Owen graduated from high school and went to work for the Standard Coffee Company.

Love came into Owen's life in 1936 when he went on a double date. He fell in love with the other boy's date and married her nearly two years later. They lived a long and happy life together for more than fifty five years.

At the age of 28, Owen enlisted in the United States Army. Leaving his wife and baby boy behind, Collins shipped off to England and prepared to land on the shores of France. As a member of General George S. Patton's Third Army, Owen and his division fought their way through the hedgerows and fortified villages of France in one brutal battle after another.

Collins was carrying a bazooka when the orders came through to take a house filled with Germans. Not knowing the order had been rescinded, Owen continued his advance. Upon reaching the designated objective, Owen realized he was all alone. Deciding that he would be killed or captured if he retreated, he concluded that his only option was to take the whole house, which he did. In doing so, Collins was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. It would be one of two times that Owen would receive the nation's 3rd highest honor for heroism.

There was nothing different about the morning December 20, 1944. It was cold, unmercifully cold. The Battle of the Bulge was raging about Bastogne. Owen and Frederick Svoboda were busy digging their fox hole when they were captured by a German picket. They were taken to Stalag 7 near Munich. While in prison, Owen was forced to eat a diet mainly of bread filled with sawdust. Always looking to help those in need, Owen would gather potatoes while on work details outside the prison, hide them in his specially designed long johns, and cook them for his friends on a stove which he fashioned from pieces of metal he picked up along the way.

A week before the end of the war, Stalag 7 was liberated by the 14th Armored Division. Owen traded his cigarettes for a Brownie camera. He took pictures of his camp, his fellow prisoners, and the planes as they flew overhead. These pictures can be viewed by going to www.moosburg.org.

The Collins family moved to Blue Ridge in 1947. When Kit, the oldest child, went to school with no electricity, Owen put electricity and a light in his son's classroom. The next year, Owen had the entire school wired with electricity and lights. When anyone needed anything fixed in the neighborhood, Owen was there with tools in his hands and a smile on his face. "He would have given anyone the shirt off of his back if he thought it would help them." Lynn recalled of her fathers unceasing desire to help those in need.

Owen's first heart attack struck him at the age of 38 in 1953. Collins, a top salesman for Beck & Gregg Hardware, was forced to hire a teenage student to carry his heavy catalog when he called on his customers. Thirteen years later, Owen suffered the third attack on his heart. Forced to retire, Owen turned to what he loved best, woodworking, hunting, and fishing. His custom-made gunstocks were prized collector's items and heirlooms. His doll houses, game tables, and refinished furniture were considered works of art.

Whether hunting with his best friend Cliff Wilson or fishing with his entire family, Owen loved the outdoors. There was the time when he and his children were sitting in his boat fishing. The baby girl Jan, three years old at the time, was the only one not to catch a fish. When the appropriate diversion came, Owen secretly reeled her line in, placed a good sized fish securely on the hook, and quickly and discreetly placed it back into the cool mountain lake. "She thought she had caught a fish and was the happiest girl in Blue Ridge," Lynn fondly remembered.

L-R: Kit, Doug, Owen and Lynn Collins (Jan wasn't born yet)

After surviving a war, months in a P.O.W. camp, and three heart attacks, Owen fought the ravages of Alzheimer's Disease for the last twenty years of his life. Giving up the keys to his car wasn't as bad as giving up the keys to his riding lawnmower on which he gave rides around the back yard in its trailer. In his retirement, Owen took in a troubled young man who lived across the street. Years later, the then grown man told Owen's daughter that her father was responsible for turning his life around because of the love and guidance he had given to him.

To his nation and his family Owen Collins was a hero, not just because he was a soldier and a prisoner of war, but because he was a wonderful father, keen businessman and expert craftsman and most of all, a good friend. Like the many members of the "Greatest Generation, " Owen Collins most important contributions to America did not come on the cold muddy battlefields of France or in the fact that he survived the horrors of the stalags. They came from his gifts to his community, his family and his friends.