The Woodward News

September 16, 2012

Ex-POW’s from WWII share their stories

Brandi Thomas
Woodward News

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.



GENE STEVENS

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.



JACK WARNER

Jack D. Warner tells of his capture and escape from the Japanese during World War II.

Jack is also a former National Commander for the American Ex-Prisoners of War.

"My name is Jack D. Warner, and I have lived most of my life in western Oklahoma. I joined the United States Marine Corp in 1939, and was in the Marines until 1946. I went to San Diego, CA for boot camp, and then I was then transferred to Mairaini Island, CA for 9 months. I then was sent to Shanghai, China by the way of Hawaii; Midway Island; Wake; Guam; Manila, Philippines; Chongqing, North China, up the Yangzi River to Shanghai. I was sent to the 2nd Battalion E Co 4th Rec. for about 14 months, then to Olongapo/Subic Bay, Philippines. When World War II started I went through a strafing by Japanese zeros from there to Bataan, then to Corregidor Island. We went through bombings every day, by 4 motor bombers for 4 months. After General King surrendered Bataan we were bombed everyday and some nights, by 105, 155, 8 in. and 240mm cannons.  The Japanese Emperor's birthday was April 29, and on that day shelling started about 4 in the morning and stopped about 10 p.m. Jack Graves, the squad leader and myself were buried twice during the shelling up to our necks. At this time I was in A Company 1st Battalion.

The night of May 5th the Japanese landed on Corregidor Island in front of my post. We fought all night, up until 11 in the morning of May 6. That is when the Army surrendered Corregidor, because we were out of ammunition, water and food. I was captured by the Japanese at that time, and taken to Bilibid prison camp in Manila, then to Cabanatuan and from there I was sent on a Hellship Lima Maru to Formosa, Japan, from Formosa I was sent to Yokohama, Japan, Mitsubishi shipyard [where I worked] as a riveter from Thanksgiving Day 1942 until May 12, 1945.  We went through 2 shellings by Halsey 3rd fleet which killed 36 American Prisoners of War and a lot of Japanese. After that we escaped twice while we were there, and the second time, myself and 21 other men made it to the American lines and turned ourselves into the 7th Army General Johnson, Quaguin Islands. From there I was sent back to the states by the way of Guam, Hawaii and Oakland Naval Hospital. I was a Sgt. at the time of discharge."



KEN BECKWITH

Ken Beckwith tells his story of marching with other prisoners through the cold German countryside.

"Feb. 6, 1945, an estimated 11,000 Prisoners of War, both American and English, and I was one of them, marched out of Stalag 4, just ahead of the advancing Russian Army. They said there was only a  30 mile gap to get us through. They (Germans) were planning on trying to get us to another prisoner of war camp at  Swanda Mundy only two days march. There was 24 inches of snow on the ground and the coldest weather in Germany in 60 years. We marched all night and finally in the early morning we stopped and everyone fell out in the snow, too tired to go on.

That 2 day march turned into an estimated 800 miles and 80 days later. 4 of us teamed up together for the whole trip. Andy Anderson - Cooper - Monty Childress and I. Our main food was potatoes that we could steal.

So many of the POWs had dysentery and just couldn't go on. They were left behind with a German guard and later in the day that guard was up with the group again. It took no imagination to know what happened.

We were recaptured by the American Army at the Elbe River where the American and Russian troops met. This is just a brief summary of my stay with the German govt. And if you really want to know what freedom means, talk to any ex-POW, if you can get them to talk about it."



RALPH E. BAIRD, Jr.

The story of how Ralph E. Baird, Jr. earned his Army medals.

"In Aug. 1942 Jr. married his wife Jackie. 17 days later Jr. took his Army physical. A month after the wedding he was Pvt. Ralph E. Baird, Jr.  Jr.'s father Ralph E. Baird, Sr. had served in WWI.  Jr. 's Army career was not  a smooth one. Jr. was inducted in August 1942 and discharged in October 1945. Jr. was a ball turret gunner and crew chief on a B17. On Feb. 22, 1944 his plane was shot down, on their 13th mission, over Germany. He was taken prisoner of war. Being in a prison in East Prussia he was moved several times. Each time ahead of the Russian advance. Jr. and Jackie's 1st son was 11 months old when Jr. finally got home. Jr. was awarded the purple heart, European theatre of operations with three bronze stars and the air medal with two oak leaf clusters."



WALTER ROBERTS

Walter Roberts tells his story of his release from captivity in Germany during World War II.

"On May 12, 1945 the American prisoners being held at Littau, Germany were ordered to fall out. It was dark.

We began our trek to Czechoslovakia which was about 17 miles. The guards handed out bread to each man and that was the last we would see of them.

Three of us left the other POW's and stared hitchhiking to Prague. We got rides with a Russian medical squad, a four door touring car that was powered by steam, and we walked the rest of the way. Total distance of about 60 miles.

We came to a small town where all the people were going into one building, so we entered. This place had a stage at one end where 3 or 4 German officers were standing. The people were holding a public trial for these men. By the shouting, by the people, we knew what the outcome would be. We retreated out the door and continued on our way to Prague.

The people of Prague could all speak English and they put us up in one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in. The rooms had balconies, silk sheets on the beds and [the hotel] was 12 to 14 stories high. They also provided us food.

We stayed about a week.

he Czechs managed to get a pick-up and transport us to Pilsen where the American Army was. They had a driver, 2 men in the back of the pick-up with guns in case we would meet any Germans along the way."

Editor's Note: Roberts recently was part of one of the Oklahoma Honor Flights for World War II veterans. Look for his story in a future edition of the Woodward News.