POWs never forget their ordeal THE PRICE OF FREEDOM

September 27, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Catherine Mannion, elegant and dignified in her white suit and her white legionnaire's hat with the gold star, leads the pledge of allegiance in the small brick chapel where the symbols in the stained glass windows all are of hope and peace and none are of war.

Katherine Mannion's worn that gold star nearly 25 years. Her son Todd died in Vietnam in 1966. She and another hundred or so people came yesterday to this chapel in the Baltimore VA Medical Center to honor POWs and remember MIAs.

Katherine Mannion never forgets and neither does anyone else in this room. They light candles in a ceremony of remembrance, and George Melbourne, who works in food service, sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a fine firm tenor, and everybody joins in strong and clear as they sing "land of the free and home of brave."

Jack Meyer, who was a prisoner of the Germans in Italy in World War II and now has a whole slew of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, gets up into the little oak pulpit and says, "Excuse me if I'm a little nervous."

"They have me down as guest of honor," he says. He's state commander of American Ex-Prisoners of War.

"But I'm not," he says. "You all are. POWS: All stand up. These are your guests of honor." About two dozen men rise, slowly, no longer young, gray and some leaning on canes, but standing tall. And there is prolonged applause.

Jack Meyer reads a little poem about prisoners of war: "No one can understand what a POW's been through unless they've been a POW, too."

"And the only thing worse," Jack Meyer says, "is if you are a POW and listed as MIA."

Then George Melbourne sings "Born Free" and the song has a touching resonance among these men who have known prison and privation in an enemy country.

Elton McDowell, another former POW, carries forth a wreath of red and white carnations and there's a prayer of benediction and everyone retires to a little reception with a POW-MIA cake and coffee and fruit salad.

And the talk is of places that sound like history but are as real as tomorrow to these men.

"I was captured at Anzio," Meyer says. "Out on patrol. We got completely cut off. Only three of us survived. Seven started out.

"You're scared," he says. "You are scared. The muzzle of that little rifle looks like a cannon.

"If I had you as a prisoner of war and I was pointing a gun at your head, I could shoot you and who would care. You live under that fear day after day after day.

"When you see them come into camp and take one of your buddies and take him out, and then you hear gunfire and you never see him again, you don't know if he's been killed or not."

"And that's hanging over your head from day one," Meyer says. "You never know."

Meyer managed to escape during a movement of prisoners by jumping off a bridge into a stream. When he got back to an American outfit, they shipped him back home for a rest, then transferred him to the Pacific war. He came home to spend 32 years with Domino Sugar.

Norman Brenner, who's 73 now and lives in Randallstown, had already been a veteran of nearly six years of service when he was captured in the Philippines. He went through the Bataan Death March.

"Then we were put on a hell ship to Japan," Brenner says. "Men were drinking urine and blood to stay alive. What was left of us. Four hundred were pressed into room for a hundred."

He was put to work at a steel mill in Nagoya, Japan.

"I damn sure did work," he says. "With a Number 10 steel shovel. Ever try it?!"

Everett Hedgeman and Nick Tosques were captured by the Chinese Army in Korea.

Hedgeman, who lives in Woodlawn, had been on the line four months as an infantryman when he was captured in 1950 near the Yalu River in North Korea.

"There were three of us together," Hedgeman says. "We were up on a mountain. They call them hills but it was a mountain.

"We were in the open. We ran out of ammo and we were trying to make it back to our outfit and we ran into a Chinese command post."

He spent the next two years, eight months and 13 days in a place the Chinese called Camp 5. He wasn't mistreated but he also doesn't forget the exact number of days he spent as a POW.

"I bet he remembers the Chinese national anthem," Tosques says. He's 63 and from Dagsboro, Del. "They played it all the time over the loudspeakers."

Hedgeman remembers. He can still almost sing it.

The Chinese captured Tosques in April 1951 near Seoul.

"I had about two weeks to go before rotation, but the Chinese had other ideas."

He remained instead in a Chinese prison camp until Operation Big Switch in August 1953. His treatment fluctuated with the progress of peace talks.

"If the peace talks went good," he says, "we were treated good. Once when the talks were going OK, they gave us clean blankets and uniforms. But then the talks went sour and they took them back."

None of these men looks particularly heroic. They wear legionnaire caps and red jackets with ex-POW patches. And they wear badges and buttons and ribbons that often mean they have been very brave in their youth and that they have been wounded, sometimes very badly, and that they have spent hard time in obscure places that have become part of American history.

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