The ABCs of Lowell History: L is for Lieutenant William Lalley

The ABCs of Lowell History is back for another round. This popular series explores a wide variety of topics in Lowell area history in weekly online articles and is written by volunteers and staff from the Lowell Area Historical Museum.

L is for Lieutenant William Lalley

William (Bill) Lalley’s family history in the Lowell area goes all the way back to 1845 when his Great Grandfather Thomas Lally settled in the Grattan area. Bill grew up here, graduating from Lowell High School in 1940, then went on to graduate from Michigan State College.

At the age of 21, Bill was called into military service from the Air Force College Reserve Program. He graduated from flight school in January 1944. He entered as Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force and flew the B – 17 Flying Fortress.

On April 29, 1944, on his first bombing mission, the plane was hit by antiaircraft fire and Lalley was forced to bail out of the aircraft over the Nazi occupied Netherlands.

His mother received the Missing in Action telegram from the War Department, but all of Lowell was affected. Before he left, Lt. Lalley spoke at the Lowell Rotary Club. At their meeting after learning Lalley was missing in action, all the members stood for one minute in silent prayer for his safe return home.

Lalley had landed in a tree. After freeing himself and hiding for a period of time, he approached civilians riding their bicycles. From them he was able to make contact with a couple he was to call “Pa” and “Moe.” They connected him to the underground network who returned American Airmen to England. Bill met Dick Kragt, British agent who helped American and British soldiers, but he was unable to help as some members of his group had been exposed. Kragt warned Lalley that many using the Dutch underground were being captured.

There wasn’t much of a choice but to try to get out of the country with the help of the Dutch underground. As warned, he was betrayed by one of them and was captured. He entered the Luftwaffe prisoner of war system. He spent quite a bit of time in solitary confinement and was interrogated by the Germans. He was threatened with execution for being a spy. The Red Cross was there and helped the prisoners by giving them food, but ironically, they tried to get the prisoners to fill out forms with the same questions that the Germans were asking.

Lalley remembered, “There had been an escape attempt shortly before I arrived. Some Canadians had tunneled under the fence but came up short of the woods. They were caught and shot. The senior officer discontinued any escape efforts after that.”

As the Russians moved closer to the camps in the winter of 1944, the prisoners were forced to march to Spremberg. There they boarded trains and were taken to Nuremberg. From here they watched the daily flight of the 8th Airfare bombers pounding German targets during the day, and the British pounding the Germans at night. Then they marched to a camp in Moosburg, (30 miles northeast of Munich).

“We did have one harrowing experience passing through a small village. A train was stopped and had been spotted by some of our P-47’s. They began a strafing run and came in with guns spitting fire and the engine exploded in a cloud of steam. As they pulled up to circle, we ran into an adjacent field and spelled out P.O.W. in large block letters with blankets from our bedrolls. They must have seen the signal for they did not return for another pass at the train. It was a miracle that no one was killed or injured.”

On April 29, 1945, exactly one year to the day that Lalley had been shot down, they saw American tanks appear on the hills in the distance. Soon they were at the camp, and it was confirmed. The camp had been liberated. In Lalley’s words, “WE WERE FREE!!” They were taken to camp “Lucky Strike” outside of Paris, processed for return to the states. The first item on the agenda was a hot shower with lots of soap and clean clothes. Then on to the mess hall where “G.I. grub seemed like elegant cuisine.”

Arriving in Chicago they were taken to Gardner General Hospital to be checked out. Lalley was in such bad shape compared to his normal self that his own brother Jack walked right past him.

Pauline Vlaming, a Dutch National, part of the underground was discovered to be the Nazi collaborator. She not only betrayed Lalley, but hundreds of other U.S. Airmen.

In 1953, he was able to meet Eddie Racks, the Colonel in command of the tank battalion that liberated the camp at Moosberg Germany on April 29, 1945.

In 1997, Bill and his wife were able to return to the Netherlands. He visited the area where he was shot down and hidden by the underground. He visited Yap “Pa” Van den Top and his wife Mini “Moe”, still living in the house.

Bill spent his life working as an FBI agent and was a personnel director at the Donnelly Corp. He raised a family and was involved in his community, including serving as President of the West Ottawa School board.

Bill Lalley left a treasure for future generations of Lalleys and Lowell area residents. This treasure is a written diary of his war experiences, including all of the pain and fear of captivity, along with the sheer joy and gratitude of his rescue. Bill’s family summed up Bill’s life with the written words on his gravestone, “Loved by all”.

The Lalley family has graciously donated a copy of Bill’s journal to the museum, and it is available for reading in the museum’s research room during open hours or by appointment.

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