Woodward, Okla. —
Every 2nd Thursday of the month, a small group of people with a unique bond gather for lunch at Big Dan's Steakhouse in Woodward.
They are the members of the Oklahoma Panhandle Chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War. This group of former Prisoners of War (POW) and their family members gather for fellowship with others who also have the rare knowledge of what it was like to be taken captive by an enemy of war, either from first-hand experience or through the memories of a loved one.
The American Ex-Prisoners of War is a national organization for former POWs of all wars and their next of kin.
For more information on the organization, visit its website at www.axpow.org or call the national office at (817) 649-2979.
Or feel free to join any meeting of the Oklahoma Panhandle Chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War. Chapter members say they would love for anyone to stop by their meetings, even if they are not a former POW.
Their meetings are a time for telling stories, whether it is reminiscing about times past or just catching up with each other on happenings since the last meeting.
This month the members were asked to write letters about their experiences while being a POW, which they graciously presented to The News to share with our readers.
Here are their stories.
The story of Norman Eugene 'Gene' Stevens, as told by his wife, Laura Stevens:
"My husband, Norman Eugene Stevens, enlisted in the US Navy on March 11, 1940. After boot camp and four months schooling in San Diego, he was assigned to serve on 'The Heavy Cruiser,' The USS Houston CA 30. He was sent to the Philippines and was there when WWII broke out. The Houston was then sent to the Far East.
The Houston was known as 'The Flagship of the Asiatic Fleet.' The Japanese claimed so often to have sunk her, she was nicknamed 'The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast.' She was sunk in the battle of Sunda Strait, March 1, 1942. Of Houston's 1087 officers and men, 721 went down with the ship and 366 escaped only to be captured as they floundered helplessly in the sea.
Gene was in the water 14 hours before he was picked up by the Japanese and turned over to the Japanese Military Police, and it was all bad news from there.
Gene was in several prison camps in Java, Batavia, Singapore and Thailand, where they were forced to work at building a railroad, with no tools but their hands.
After many deaths of the prisoners, 14 to 16 a night, they were sent back to Chang's camp in Singapore.
The War ended Aug. 15. On approximately Sept. 1, Gene was the last person on the first plane to a hospital in Calcutta, India. In about 2 weeks [he was sent] to St. Albans, New York. He was discharged on March 15, 1945 after 3 1/2 years as a Japanese prisoner of war.
We are so grateful he made it back home in spite of all the filth, starvation, beatings, diseases and brutality he endured."
Gene and Laura did not meet till after Gene returned from the war and were married on April 7, 1946.
Laura Stevens said after returning home Gene had many health problems from the hard labor and malnutrition that he endured while in the POW camps.
"He was a gentle man and a good husband and father," Stevens said.
He never talked much about being in the camps, but from what she gathered over the years they didn't get much food and when they were too weak to work, they got no food.
She said that after his time in the POW camps, he hated to see others go hungry.
"He had said that when he was in the water after the boat sank, the Japanese men that had picked him up were some of the nicest people. They themselves didn't have much food and one even gave him his bowl of rice. Gene had said that rumors were that even the fishermen would shoot you in the water so he fought these men that were trying to save his life," she said.
Stevens said that she didn't truly understand what her husband had gone through until they took a trip to Australia and along the way visited some of the camps that he had stayed in while he was a POW.