Remembering sacrifices of America’s POWs

  • Published
  • By Col. Herb Wesselman
  • 72nd Mission Support Group commander
When I was a young man, the Vietnam War was still close enough in the past for many to remember clearly. I remember watching the repatriation of our prisoners of war in 1973.
At the time I was nine years old and knew that it was important to my parents and grandparents. Also at that time my Uncle Johnny, a POW held in Germany during World War II, was alive. To be honest, I really didn't understand the magnitude of POWs' sacrifices.

Throughout our history and even in our own civil war, the American POW experience has been marked by extreme hardship, maltreatment, torture and extended detention.
We recognize the sacrifices of American POWs during April in commemoration of the brutal experiences of the Bataan Death March. Saturday, April 9 marked the 69th anniversary of the march, where approximately 75,000 American and Filipino POWs were forcibly marched to internment camps. Thousands of these POWs, many of them American, never completed the march, and thousands more perished during their captivity.

Almost 94,000 Americans were taken prisoner by Germany and 25,000 by Japan in World War II. Among those held captive during World War II was Frank Woodruff Buckles, who served as a corporal in World War I. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese while he worked in the shipping business. He passed away this past February as the oldest and last American veteran from World War I. He is but one POW from that era to go on to make significant contributions to American society.

The Korean War and Vietnam War saw more Americans held as prisoners of war. The treatment and conditions of many of these POWs was dictated by the circumstances under which they were captured. In many instances the captured were treated as criminals. Others endured physical and mental abuse as their captors attempted to indoctrinate them or coerce statements for propaganda purposes. The mistreatment of POWs during the Korean War resulted in President Eisenhower prescribing the code of conduct. This code formed the foundation for the POWs in Vietnam and wars since, not only to resist similar efforts by their captors, but also to endure their long captivity.

Those that survived captivity as a POW and were repatriated have a unique perspective on freedom. American POWs are the only ones that truly understand what it means to have their unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness stripped from them. The rights we take for granted were taken from them because they were doing their duty to protect those rights for the rest of us. Fortunately, POWs regained those rights as soon as they were repatriated to the United States.

American POWs have made contributions to the military by passing on their experiences to future servicemembers. Others have chosen to serve in elected or appointed offices at local, state and federal levels. Still others went into business for themselves. Many came home to an even higher calling as moms, dads and grandparents, who, through their sacrifice and example, have raised generation after generation of volunteers that serve our country today.

I had an opportunity to learn and understand first hand from someone with experience as an American POW that there is another very important group of people. While this group of people didn't endure the same hardships as the POWs, they did endure hardships. These are the families of our American POWs. They endured the torment of not knowing the fate of their loved one. I'm sure that their love and support were a key morale booster and a major contribution to the survival and return of their loved ones.

To all of the former POWs, now I understand what you sacrificed. Thank you for your service to the country and enduring the hardships of captivity. As veterans, we should all salute these men and women for the sacrifices they made for us and our country.