(First published 9-27-07)
Many thought they would never come home. They were cold, tired, scared and hungry. Maybe they were forgotten. Perhaps they didn't matter. Maybe they wouldn't survive.
They were wrong.
They were POWs that would again feel what it is to be free.
No, these aren't stories from Iraq. But they could be. It shows how war hasn't changed much. Just the reasons behind the fighting do.
"Portraits of Patriots" is a POW-gathering project being developed by photographer Chester Simpson, best known for his rock-n-roll photos in Rolling Stone magazine and on album covers in the 70s and 80s. It combines in-depth one-on-one interviews with the POWs in their homes and offices about their ordeals, with stunning portraits.
Simpson, now with more than 30 years professional experience, was recognized as a great talent even before began his professional career. He hitchhiked in 1975 from his home in Blue Ridge Mountains to California to accept a photography scholarship at the San Francisco Institute of Art. While still in art school, Rolling Stone magazine published his first picture, which kicked off his career as a rock-n-roll photographer, shooting for MTV, Warner Bros, MCA, AM, Capitol, CBS, and Chrysalis Records.
But the adventures had just begun. There was a dinner at his mentor Ansel Adams' home, breakfast with folk singer Joan Baez and lunch with the band Peter, Paul and Mary. Not to mention the countless nights partying with musicians who stopped by his apartment while in the town, often remembering him from a photo shoot.
He captured all the music greats. Rock-n-rollers like Bob Dylan, Benny Goodman, Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin, The Band, Eagles, Queen, Rolling Stones, Spinal Tap, U2, the Who, Van Halen and Paul McCartney. Punk rockers like the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Billy Idol. New wave performers of the era such as Devo, Blondie and the Stray Cats.
The evolution of his career brought him to more serious projects. After a decade of several record covers, he moved to Washington, D.C. and began working as a newspaper photo editor. That move led him to a stint in 1989 as the Director of Photography at the Pentagram, the Pentagon newspaper. While at the Pentagram, he began a contract with the USO, photographing celebrities and musicians entertaining the troops around the world. Ultimately documenting 35 tours, these journeys particularly moved him.
With his military connections, he was able to photograph the veterans on POW/MIA Day held at the Pentagon. One by one, the men and women at the event who survived WWII, Vietnam or the Korean War opened up to him about their harrowing ordeals. It seemed like an exercise in catharsis for them. Simpson jotted down everything they said into his notebook. He knew this was the beginning of something special. In time, he revisited all the vets in their environments, took portraits and interviewed them. He brought with him a video recorder so he wouldn't miss anything.
"Their stories were amazing. I don't know if I could have survived in the same situations," he says. "One POW told me that she and other captives lived for the daily BBC radio program. It was something to look forward to, to live for." Since they weren't allowed to listen to the radio, they came up with a solution that made their days of captivity a little easier.
"Between all the different trades in the camp: pipefitters and metal workers, etc. they were able to make a radio. And they hid it under the Japanese commander's steps," says Simpson, chuckling.
Simpson explains that when he was a little boy he would often ask his father, a WWII vet, and grandfather, a WWI vet, how they survived.
"They would get a distant look on their faces and slowing begin to tell me their experiences in the wars," says Simpson. "Being excited about history, I would ask them to go into more details about the wars, and I wondered what it was like to have experienced what they experienced."
Some of the stories Simpson gathered (see examples below) have never been told to the public. Others whom he interviewed and photographed have since passed away. The project will preserve their memories and experiences, Simpson says.
The project, officially entitled "Portraits of Patriots," has had one gallery showing so far and is currently shopping for a publisher. A show of his rock-n-roll work will be held on Oct. 13 in Washington, D.C. Visit dfaonline.com/page3.html for more details.
"I never doubted that if only one survived it would be me. I suspect everyone else felt the same way." -a POW from "Portraits of Patriots"
In Their Words:
Jack A. Susler, WWII, 101 days captivity
"I was a squad leader in the 106th Infantry Division's Company F, 423rd Infantry Regiment on December 16, 1944. The 423rd, along with the division's 422nd Regiment, was in Germany forward of allied lines. This was the Germans' last big World War II offensive, also known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Within 24 hours into the battle, the German's cleverly broke through the thin line of our defenses, surrounding all of us. The two regiments were ordered to hold their positions because a US armored division was expected to arrive the next day to help with our fight.
However, only limited elements of the armored division arrived on the 17th, and their commander did not consider he had strength enough to counterattack. On December 18, the two regiments were ordered to turn about and try to fight their way out. By this time, the German forces had been reinforced. Late in the afternoon on December 19, the two regimental commanders, after seeing a quarter of their men lost in the vain effort, ordered their troops to surrender. It was three months after my 19th birthday.
The very next day we were herded into boxcars. Our train arrived at Bad Orb (Stalag IXB) on Christmas Day, and we had our first POW meal of soup, bread and potatoes. In the case of my unit it was the first food we had had since breakfast on December 16. We were interrogated for days and divided by rank, (and, in the case of Jews, also by race/religion). On January 26, we were moved again to Stalag IXA at Ziegenhain.
Barracks at both camps were unheated, and we only had cold water taps. No one ever took his cloths off. Two men huddled together for warmth in each bunk, triple-deckers. The only latrine was outside and could only be used during daylight. The meager diet consisted of herbal tea in the morning, soup at noon, and a slice of coarse brown bread in the evening. We were provided no eating utensils, so I had my tea and soup out of my steel helmet.
After about a month, men began to die of malnutrition, and we lost scores. Fortunately, Ziegenhain was the first POW camp liberated, or we would have lost many more. After an abortive attempt to evacuate the POW's on March 29, the German guards fled.
US troops entered the camp on Good Friday. On Easter Sunday, as the ex-POWs were starting their own sunrise worship service, a US Army chaplain arrived with communion wafers, hymnals, etc. Finally we felt truly liberated.
Although I saw men killed in battle and die in the POW camp, I never doubted that if only one survived it would be me. I suspect everyone else felt the same way."
Jeremiah W. Moher, WWII, 396 days of captivity
"The decisive battle for the Beachhead began at dawn on February 16, 1944. Our men were just barely in their positions. My platoon was on the left side of a railroad track that ran parallel to and about five feet from the highway. The German attack was relentless.
I was shot and captured with four members of my platoon about midnight on February 16th. The Germans walked my men and [me] toward their line through the rather deep ditch between the highway and railroad tracks. This was possibly the lowest I had ever felt. I felt like the world had come to an end.
After several days and three hospitals I was transferred to Schubin, Poland to OFLAG 64, Officer's Lager, on April 16, 1944. This was my home for the next ten months.
The Germans supplied us with one cup of boiled water and blanched barley in the morning. For lunch we got a very thin cup of bouillon and an eighth of a 2-kilogram loaf of bread. Supper consisted of a potato or a half of a rutabaga. Red Cross parcels supplemented this diet until the Germans could no longer provide us with transport of the parcels because of the American bombing. We all lost weight. Each one of us had approximately 800 - 900 calories per day. On an average we each lost about 35 pounds.
The occupants of OFLAG 64 were all kept busy by doing a wide variety of activities. It was this change in my daily activity that made my life worth living. I wanted to get home to my mother and my fiancée. "
Mary Rose Harrington Nelson & T. Page Nelson, WW II, 146 days captivity
"I was a nurse in the U.S. Navy on duty at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Cavite, on the Philippine Islands. Page was a U.S. Treasury Department employee in Manila at the start of World War II, working out of the Office of the High Commissioner.
We were both taken prisoner of war on January 3, 1942, when the Japanese occupied Manila. In March of 1942, I was sent to Santo Tomas, the civilian internment camp. Page was transferred to Santo Tomas in October 1942. While there, Page worked on garbage detail, shredding coconuts.
We were both sent to Los Banos camp in central Luzon in May of 1943. I worked as a nurse with little medicine in very primitive conditions, but we did the best we could. Page became an orderly at the hospital where we became close friends.
We were liberated on February 23, 1945, in a very dramatic rescue. Our internment lasted for three years and nearly two months. I was young and in good health but I do thank the good Lord and my Chief Nurse, Laura Cobb for surviving as well as I did. I met my husband as a patient in Los Banos.
After our return to the states, we were married in San Diego on Friday, the 13th of 1945. We have four children and five grandchildren."
Norman A. McDaniel, Vietnam War, 2,400 days captivity
"I participated in the Air War over Northern Vietnam. Flying from Takhli Air Base, Thailand, I was shot down and captured on July 20, 1966 while on my 51st combat mission in an Eb _66C (Electronics Reconnaissance) airplane about 30 nautical miles north west of Hanoi, North Vietnam.
The airplane was hit by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) and began to fall apart. I was captured immediately upon landing after parachuting from the burning airplane. Six crewmembers were in the airplane and five of us survived the shoot down. During the first two weeks of captivity I was tortured severely for military, biographical, and propaganda information. The torture was a little less frequent during the next six months. Then periodically, during the rest of my incarceration (more than 6 1/2 years – 2,400 days), I was tortured by the enemy.
During the torture sessions, sometimes the pain was so severe that I wondered if I could endure another minute or second of it, but when I reached that point, I prayed for strength and my prayers were answered. When the passing minutes seemed like hours, the hours seemed like days, and the days seemed to never end, I had to reach for sources of strength beyond myself to Survive. First, I had a wife and two small children who were depending on me to return to them, and I was determined to do my utmost not to let them down.
Second, I had a love for our great country and an oath of office (as a Commissioned Officer of the U.S. Armed Forces) to uphold, and I was committed to uphold that oath at all cost. Third, I felt great loyalty to my fellow POW's and I was determined not to aid the enemy by saying or doing anything that might cause grave harm, injury, or death to any of them. Fourth, and most strengthening by far, was a strong and abiding faith in God. . . Through sincere faith, prayer, and meditation, I was convinced that no matter what happened to me physically (even mortal death), God's strength would sustain me not only in prison or in this mortal life, but also even through eternity.
Some of my fellow prisoners did not survive. I am thankful every day that I did return to my family, friends, and country alive. I would not wish that experience upon anyone. But, I would say that if you have close family ties, a love of country, loyalty to your comrades, and strong faith in God, you could, in all likelihood, survive a long, torturous, and uncertain incarceration at the hands of a cruel enemy."
Victor Mapes, WWII, 765 days captivity
"Upon being surrounded by 5,000 Japanese on May 30, 1942 in the Philippines, we surrendered only after we were told that General Wainwright, the commander of all forces (after MacArthur left), was captured and asked the forces to surrender.
We were interrogated and placed on an island in an old penal colony. We worked as slave labor building an airship. We protested and refused. As a result, the Japanese put 750 men on a prison ship (hell ship), the Shino Marv. In the ship the air was foul; we were packed in like sardines. A lot of the men became delirious for lack of food and water; we only received seven tablespoons of water a day. All the men talked about was food.
The ship was torpedoed by an American submarine and torn in two, out of 750 men only 80 POW's survived, most were shot by the Japanese in the water. I swam away from the sinking ship and floated for 17 hours with a broken leg. I was then rescued by native mountain people in a dug out canoe and turned over to the Americans when they retook the Philippines.
I'm around today because I prayed to the good Lord up there and he saved me. I had a feeling that I'd be the last one to die and I had a lot of faith in the All Mighty, which gave me inner strength."
Mapes' great grandfather was a prisoner of war during the Civil War and died attempting to tunnel out of Andersonville.
Sen. John S. McCain, Vietnam War, 1,966 days captivity
"The date was Oct. 26, 1967. I was on my 23rd mission, flying right over the heart of Hanoi in a dive at about 4,500 feet, when a Russian missile the size of a telephone pole came up and blew the right wing off my sky hawk dive-bomber.
Once you become a prisoner of war, then you do not have the right to dissent, because what you do will be harming your country. You are no longer speaking as an individual, you are speaking as a member of the armed forces of the United States, and you owe loyalty to the commander in chief, not to your own conscience.
I was finding that prayer helped. It wasn't a question of asking for superhuman strength or for god to strike the North Vietnamese dead. It was asking for moral and physical courage, for guidance and wisdom to do the right thing. I asked for comfort when in pain, and sometimes I received relief. I was sustained in many times of trial. When the pressure was on, you seemed to go one-way or the other. Either it was easy for them to break you the next time, or it was harder. In other words, if you are going to make it, you get tougher as time goes by. But you get to hate them so bad that it gives you strength.
Now I don't hate them any more!
I had much time to think over there, and came to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life -- along with a man's family -- is to make some contribution to his country."
Col. Ruby G. Bradley, WWII, 1,115 days captivity
Before the United States entered World War II, Col. Ruby Bradley was serving at Camp John Hay, on the Baguio in the Philippine Islands. One hour after learning the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, Bradley was captured by the Japanese. She spent the next 37 months and five days as a prisoner of war. During her time as a POW, Bradley's service continued. As her own frame shrunk to only 86 lbs., she assisted in 230 major operations and delivered 13 American babies.
In addition, to her many military honors, Bradley was recognized by the International Red Cross Committee with the Florence Nightingale medal for her outstanding service while a POW, along with several other civilian awards and honor. She is known as "the most decorated woman in the U.S. Army history."
"Our faith and hope never faltered. We made an American flag from small pieces of cloth, and I had the honor to sew on the blue, the star for our state of West Virginia. We would gaze at it on each 4th of July, and when coming away from the hidden spot, we always had the feeling that those colors were symbolic of our hopes for the future.
Then, the happiest day in our lives: the liberation on February 3. We knew the Americans were near; the [Japanese] had been burning records at different times since January 9th. Then too, we could hear the sound of artillery fire in the distance.
There was a mad rush of the Japanese -- then all was quiet within [the area] but the rumbling of the tanks became more audible as they came near our front gate. We were watching from our window wondering what was happening. Then, the grand smell of American gasoline and the sound of American voices -- we knew the hour had arrived.
Around 9:00pm. An American tank crashed the gate and slowly moved up the land followed by our soldiers on foot. We shouted greetings to the boys and they in return called to us. We were overcome with joy."
Eddie Davis, WW11, 129 days of captivity, Korean War, 1,139 days of captivity
Pvt. Eddie Davis was among the thousands of American soldiers captured by the Nazi's during the Battle of the Bulge on December 19, 1944. For the next four months he spent it as a POW at Stalag 3 near Wittenberg, Germany, staying busy keeping in shape.
"The Germans would hit you with their rifle butt for not standing at attention or getting out of bed in the morning." It was the closing moments of World War II, with the Germans sensing defeat, "They treated the prisoners reasonably well, "says Davis. Food was scarce for both Germans and their prisoners. Discharged from the Army after the war, he re-enlisted.
"I just wanted to see what was going to happen next."
In July 4, 1950 Cpl. Davis was with the first troops sent to Korea and a week later overrun by the North Korean soldiers. They fought until it was hopeless, then disassembled their weapons and buried them in the riverbed, so the enemy wouldn't use them.
Captured, with hands tied behind their backs, stripped of all their money and possessions, they were lined up kneeling on the road watching as a North Korean assemble a machine gun. Thinking this was the end; Davis began to pray. Shots rang out, as American planes strafed the ground around them sending everyone running for the cover of a building.
Sent by train to a camp in North Korea for a month, he was then marched over a hundred-miles of mountainous terrain in nine days, which was known as the Tiger Death March, named after the brutal North Korean Officer who personally executed or beat prisoners to death for not keeping up. Arriving in Camp No. 3 in Changsong and with winter fast approaching, the prisoners were put to work cutting wood to stay warm. Davis being the oldest soldier there, he encouraged others to keep going. Sometimes the guards would just call you out and just beat you for no reason.
"I told them, don't give up, just take it easy and we'll be out of here." Prisoner Bill Skinner arrived in camp with frostbitten toes that turned black and needed to be removed. For a few cigarettes, Davis snapped them off and Skinners feet healed.
The Chinese took over the camp handing out new clothes and feeding prisoners twice a day with rice balls or died fish strips. To force confessions and record propaganda statements, psychological mind games were applied, and the prisoners where required to attend daily classes on the evils of capitalism.
"You get hungry, [and] then you go so long that you're not hungry anymore. Your stomach shrinks," says Davis. "I believe if you talk with the Lord and tell him your troubles, he'll help you. The Lord was with me! I know he was with me, because he took care of me! He saw that I didn't get killed. I forgive them."
Davis weighted 75 pounds upon his release and since his stomach has shrunk he has to eat every three hours.