Former POWs visit Tinker, share story

  • Published
  • By John Stuart
  • Tinker Public Affairs
It's a length of time no prisoner of war can forget: the time he was held captive. World War II veteran Warren Ledbetter's memory is no different.
He entered the Japanese prisoner of war camp in 1942. He wouldn't emerge from captivity for more than 3 years.

He knows that 1,266 days of his life were spent as a prisoner of the Japanese. He entered the camp as a 21-year-old and emerged, after an Allied victory, at 25.

An infantry radio operator, Mr. Ledbetter was taken prisoner following the joint U.S. and Filipino surrender at Bataan in April 1942.

Mr. Ledbetter's story is one among thousands of former U.S. POWs. Last week, Mr. Ledbetter, along with seven other World War II and Korean War veterans received special honors Sept. 17 at Tinker AFB, Okla., as part of the National POW/MIA Recognition Day.

Mr. Ledbetter, like the other men gathered for the Tinker AFB event, said he can never erase the memories of his grueling captivity. But even at almost 90 years old, he is still honored to be shown so much respect for what they sacrificed.

"The American military has a long tradition of placing men and machines in harm's way to rescue the one American," said retired Chief Master Sgt. Ralph Humphrey, while addressing the audience gathered at the Tinker AFB club. "No matter the service, there are few missions more honorable than rescuing POWs."

In 2003, shortly after the start of combat in Iraq, Chief Humphrey helped coordinate the rescue of Army Private Jessica Lynch, which was the first successful rescue of an American POW since World War II and the first ever of a woman.

The rescue was further proof of how much each American servicemember is revered, Chief Humphrey explained.

"I met the rescue team upon their arrival back to the base, and I approached one giant Navy SEAL and he said 'this mission is why I became a SEAL,'" Chief Humphrey said.

But unfortunately not all POWs see their rescue come as quickly as Private Lynch did.

In Mr. Ledbetter's case, he avoided the fateful Bataan Death March due to existing injuries, but was tethered to a life of hard labor on a farm in the Philippines. He slept on bamboo slats suspended over a dirt floor. There was never enough to eat.

"We ate rice mostly, but we also ate weeds, potato vines and potato flowers," Mr. Ledbetter said. "There's no training to prepare you for an experience like that."

He joined the Army at 16, and finally, at 25, walked away from the coal mine labor camp in mainland Japan as a free man following the Allied victory.

But he wasn't thwarted by his ordeal. Mr. Ledbetter went on to pursue a career in the Air Force following WWII, to "get out of the Army infantry."
He retired at Tinker AFB in 1962, as a chief warrant officer four, in ground communications.

POW survivor Robert Boulware will never forget his 19th birthday. He spent it in a German POW camp in what is now Poland. At only 5'8", and 119 pounds, he was the "perfect size" for a tailgunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress. He made five successful bombing raids over North Africa and Italy before his plane was shot down by anti-aircraft guns over Vienna, Austria on July 17, 1944.

Mr. Boulware bailed out, but not before he made sure eight other people made it out first. He was captured immediately after touching down, and held by German fighter pilots. In April 1945, Mr. Boulware saw the end to his capture, following the Allied victory.

"We had nothing to eat and nothing to drink," Mr. Boulware said of the final months of his capture, in which he was forced to march hundreds of miles north into Germany with his fellow prisoners. He weighed 70 pounds at the time of his release.

"The knowledge we have from that generation -- we could use that knowledge now," Chief Humphrey said. "We have to talk to these men, hear their stories and take what they've learned."