I try to stay out of political frays, but my column this week is on prisoners of war. I’ve known a few: Les Edsall, World War II POW. I’ve written frequently about him and have recorded his story for YouTube and for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.
Additionally, I’ve met Captain Guy Gruters’ story. He flew over 400 combat missions during the Vietnam War, has been awarded two Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, and dozens of other citations. On Dec. 20, 1967, he was shot down a second time in Vietnam, was captured, and was imprisoned for five years and three months, including time in the Hanoi Hilton. His stories of his captivity will make listeners and readers tremble and retch; however, he knows that his faith in God saved him, allowed him to do what he needed to do to live when so many others in captivity died. He explains this in his book, Locked Up With God.
The particular subject of this column is Vietnam War POW John McCain, well known for his stint in the Hanoi Hilton after being shot down on Oct. 26, 1967, while on a bombing mission. He was seriously injured, endured torturing and isolation and was a POW until 1973.
Some will caution me to let sleeping dogs lie , but recently a World War II combat veteran let me borrow a book entitled Hold At Any Cost: 42nd Rainbow Division Prisoners of War. As I read the first-hand accounts of POWs in World War I and II who were members of the Rainbow Division of the U.S. Army, anger rose up in me.
I know it was a long time ago as American conceive of time, all the way back to July 19, 2015, when one of our presidential candidates, a man who received four student deferments from military service between 1964 and 1968, said as reported by the New York Daily News , “He (John McCain) was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who aren’t captured.”
With the public condemnation of these remarks, he later said, “If somebody’s a prisoner, I consider them a hero.”
Reprehensible? To be forgiven? You decide.
Back to Hold At Any Cost. The 100 plus POWs’ stories have themes that reverberate throughout the text: lice, starvation, forced marches in sub-zero temperatures, disease, strafing by Allied forces, beds of boards or filthy straw, guilt, and death – always death.
In the 2016 presidential election, vote for whomever you wish. That’s your right, and so many have suffered and died so that you have that right. Because of their service, I can exercise my First Amendment rights to free speech , and my words today are meant to say in a very loud and clear way, I stand with the veterans, with the POWs and the respect to which they are entitled.
I want to end by quoting James R. Warren’s account of being a POW as recorded in Hold At All Cost: He was in Leipzig, Germany, and the sounds of bombing raids were coming closer and closer. He and other World War II POWs were excited because they felt that soon they would be liberated, be free. He reports, “ A day or two later, the Unteroffizier called us to attention and announced in broken English, ‘Der Fuhrer orders all prisoners killed.’ We stood stunned, then he slowly turned, lifted Hitler’s portrait from the wall and held it up for all of us to see. Then, as though by accident, he dropped the picture to the floor, shattering the glass. He placed his boot in the center of Hitler’s face, then, after a pause, lifted his head, glanced at us with a slight smile, and announced, ‘Hitler kaput. You will not work today.’”
Warren’s words inspire me as do the words of that German in command of those prisoners, “Hitler kaput.” They give me hope that as troubled as our world is today with wars and rumors of wars, with those who are greedy for wealth and powers and who are willing to commit atrocious acts to achieve their evil ends, there are those with integrity, those who seek justice regardless of the circumstances. There can be kindness, heroism, and even humor in the most dire of circumstances.
Additionally, I firmly believe that those of us with respect for humanity are by far the majority in this world. Such a belief allows me to sleep at night, to embrace my family, to teach my students, and to say to all my veteran friends, “Thank you for your service” and to do so with humility, honesty, and with an ever-deepening understanding of what their service means as I educate myself. Perhaps some of our presidential candidates need to educate themselves further before opening their mouths. And several could use a refresher course in ethics.
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