When Walter Grotz delivers his Veterans Day talk about freedom and appreciation Friday at Delano High School, he'll have a 133-pound chunk of Polish iron and bronze by his side. The one-time prisoner of war will use it to back up his main point.

"Freedom is just like gravity and air," says Grotz, 86. "You take it for granted because it's always been there and always will be. But will it?"

As 1,600 students look on in the crowded field house, Grotz will unveil a bust of a U.S. aviator -- a small Polish town's thank-you gift that arrived in Delano a few weeks ago after years of bureaucratic delays. Delano's school superintendent hopes the students will appreciate the dual symbolism behind the sculpture and the aging veteran, each standing side by side on the stage near the end of their own remarkable journeys.

"It's important to raise up Walter's story while we still can because there are not many World War II prisoners left," Superintendent John Sweet said. "When he talks about freedom, he gets right to what it's all about. And the story behind the bust from Poland is just an added treat this year."

A Polish sculptor presented his tribute to Grotz five years ago because he's among the last of the 9,000 prisoners of war still alive who Nazis held captive in their town more than 65 years ago.

"He never talked much about his POW experience until the last few years," said Sweet, who's known Grotz from his years as Delano's postmaster. "Everyone in town knows Walter, except the kids. So we invited him to talk at Veterans Day three years ago and once he got to the microphone, he really opened up and got the kids' attention."

After all, Grotz once stood in their shoes. He was born and raised in Delano. But seven days after a rosy-cheeked Grotz graduated from Delano High in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Forces. That November, Nazi fighter planes jumped his bomber in the sky over Germany, severing its fuel line with tracer bullets.

"The gasoline ran into the bomb bay and I heard the bell and I knew one thing," he says. "When your plane's on fire at 26,000 feet, it's no time for a committee meeting."

Grotz parachuted into a farm field, where two Hitler youth pounced on him, dragged him past jeering townsfolk and delivered him to an officer at a desk beneath a massive photo of Adolf Hitler. They clicked their boot heels, saluted the fuhrer and yelled "Heil Hitler."

In the hellish 17 months that followed, Grotz picked fleas off his body in solitary confinement. He was packed into a train car and shipped to a prison camp in Poland. After months in the camp, eating stale bread made with sawdust and sipping barley water, he was forced to march for months as the Nazis tried to keep their prisoners away from the advancing Russian army.

In the twisted game of cat and mouse, they covered more than 500 miles through winter snows back to Germany, sleeping in barns and stealing cottage cheese to avoid starvation.

'What in the world?'

One day, the prisoners were allowed to shower at a facility near Fallingbostel.

"Water only came out of one set of the shower heads," he says. "I thought the others were plugged."

As he waited for Nazi guards to cook the lice and fleas from his clothes, he saw a towering pile of shoes and clothes and wondered "what in the world is going on?"

He later learned that the facility was an extermination camp where Jews had been stripped and gassed with poison flowing through the other shower heads, leaving only the mountains of clothes and shoes.

In early May 1945, as the Germans were about to ship Grotz by boat to Norway as a hostage, British soldiers liberated him and his fellow prisoners. The war was over, but Grotz was still sizzling with fever, his ribs protruding from severe weight loss. He found the keys in an old school bus and made his way back home through a series of military posts, hospitals and finally a liberty ship.

He would serve as Delano's postmaster and retire after 34 years with the U.S. Postal Service.

Returning to the scene

Five years ago, Grotz and his wife of 62 years, Mary, joined a dozen aging prisoners of war on a trip back to Koszalin, Poland, where he'd been confined at a place called Stalag Luft IV.

At a lavish banquet, Polish officials fed the Grotzes chicken and ham and "all the vodka we could drink." The governor, mayor and a member of the home guard delivered speeches of appreciation to the soldiers who helped free their town from the Nazis.

The next day, they returned to the site of the prison camp and dedicated a war memorial park, unveiling a bust of a U.S. aviator carved from a native stone. The sculptor, Zygmunt Wujek, then presented Grotz with a 133-pound copy of the bust made of cast iron and overlaid with an inch of bronze. City officials asked him to bring it back to the United States as a way to thank all the veterans and citizens.

"It was quite a thing," he says. "When did someone show you such appreciation after 60 years?"

Journey took a long time

He compares the gesture to the French gift of the Statue of Liberty, but getting the bust home turned into a five-year ordeal. All Grotz's postal experience didn't help cut through the red tape. There were calls to the Polish Consulate in Chicago and thwarted attempts from congressional offices.

Finally, a United Parcel Service honcho and Grotz's son, Jim, filled out enough forms and the package arrived last month in a box with the Polish words: Nie Rzucac. Don't toss.

After Friday's unveiling at his old high school, Walter and Mary will drive to Pooler, Ga., near Savannah, where the bust of the airman will be handed over to the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, a 15-year-old shrine to Grotz and the other 350,000 members of the Eighth Air Force. He figures it's a fitting place where the most people will get to experience the art.

Back at their home in Delano, Mary pulls out two yellowed Western Union telegrams sent to Walter's mother, Francis, in the 1940s. The first one tells her that the secretary of war "desires me to express his deep regret that your son has been reported missing in action over Germany."

The old telegram prompts Walter to flash back to his father, Otto, a mechanic at the Delano Chevrolet garage.

"I'd never seen my father show any affection; you'd never get a hug from him," Walter says. "But my older sister said when this first telegram came to our house, he cried and said: 'In World War I, they got my brother. Now they've got my son.'"

The second telegram, dated 13 months later, reported that the Red Cross had learned that Walter was a German prisoner of war.

He shrugs and says that barely enough people show up to continue the monthly meetings that former POWs hold in south Minneapolis. He's among the last of the World War II guys left.

His message to the kids at Delano High will be simple: "You don't know what freedom is until you lose it."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767