August T. Stern Jr., 82, firefighter, veteran who helped rescue POWs

October 02, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

August T. Stern Jr., a retired Baltimore firefighter and decorated World War II soldier who helped rescue 511 prisoners of war held by Japanese forces in the Philippines, died Saturday of a brain hemorrhage at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was 82.

The Northeast Baltimore resident enlisted in the artillery during the war and was selected to serve with the Army's elite 6th Ranger Battalion. The mission of the 100 volunteers was to free American POWs, many of them victims of the Bataan Death March, who were marked for execution at the notorious Cabanatuan prison camp on Luzon.

"The commanding officer of the 6th Rangers recruited volunteers from the single men within the ranks to attempt what was basically a suicide mission. Their chances of making it back alive were very slim," said his son, August T. Stern III of Forest Hill.

"Their mission was to creep and crawl 30 miles behind enemy lines under radio silence and without air cover to neutralize an overwhelming Japanese force of 3,000 regulars and rescue the doomed ghosts of Bataan and Corregidor that had been left behind by Gen. Douglas MacArthur," said the son.

A devout Roman Catholic, Mr. Stern, after attending Mass, "vowed he would give his life in the effort to rescue the POWs," his son said.

Early on Jan. 30, 1945, the volunteers, under the command of Lt. Col. Henry A. Mucci, and aided by Filipino guerrillas, began what has become known as one of the most daring military raids in American history.

"I'd glance up on occasion and could see the Jap guards in the watchtowers. I said a prayer, `Please, God, don't let them see us,'" Mr. Stern told William B. Breuer, author of The Great Raid on Cabanatuan, a book published in 1994.

What the liberators found was shocking. Many of the POWs were emaciated, sick and unable to walk, requiring most to be carried out on the backs of the volunteers.

Carrying a POW on his back, Mr. Stern began to cross what he thought was a shallow stream when he fell to his knees. "I got a whiff of the stinking odor and realized that I had fallen into a drainage ditch that carried sewage from the camp," he told Mr. Breuer.

"I was so angry that I started cursing and swearing. ... My POW said to me, `Please don't be angry. I am a Catholic priest, Lt. Hugh Kennedy.' I quickly apologized for using God's name in vain. He said, `Son, you are forgiven, because there is a time and place for everything -- and this is the time and the place."

Two Rangers died in the raid.

"For years afterward, Father Kennedy dedicated his Christmas Mass to my father," said the son, an Army sergeant in a 101st Airborne Division rifle platoon during the Vietnam War. During a furlough, he visited and photographed Cabanatuan and its shrine commemorating the mission for his father.

Discharged as a sergeant and decorated with three Bronze Stars, Mr. Stern joined the city Fire Department and served 43 years with its Rescue 1 unit, retiring in 1985.

In 1979, Mr. Stern and five other firefighters successfully challenged in court the mandatory retirement age of 60. The case reached the Supreme Court and, in 1985, resulted in every city firefighter getting the right to work until age 65.

Mr. Stern was born and raised in Highlandtown and attended City College. He left school to help support his family and worked for Scofield Silversmiths in Baltimore before joining the Army.

A quiet and modest man who was devoted to his family, he liked visiting Ocean City in the summers and spending time with his six grandchildren.

He was a member and longtime usher of St. Jude Shrine, 308 N. Paca St., where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Thursday.

In addition to his son and grandchildren, Mr. Stern is survived by his wife of 54 years, the former Concetta Liberto; a daughter, Concetta J. Fantom of Timonium; and two sisters, Mary Higgs of Dundalk and Helen Slechta of Kingsville.

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