Archive for Thursday, August 25, 2005

Before the memories fade

Basehor man recalls years as captive during World War II

August 25, 2005

"I have just received a note from the Japanese government. ... I deem this reply a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan."

President Harry S. Truman

Aug. 14, 1945 or Victory in Japan Day

Thus, the bloodiest campaign in the history of warfare -- World War II -- drew to a close. The day was one Americans "have been waiting for since Pearl Harbor," but for some, the war didn't end with those simple words uttered by the president.

Radios around the country blared static-laced reports of "Victory in Japan" or "V-J" Day and jubilation -- captured most famously in a photograph of a sailor giving a nurse a celebratory kiss in New York's Times Square -- spread throughout the country as war-weary Americans were ready for peace.

But, for Basehor resident Harry Kelley, news of the war's conclusion was tempered with caution.

Kelley, a Japanese prisoner of war, was cleaning a dingy, insect-infested mess hall in Saigon when a makeshift radio pieced together by British prisoners broadcast the news. Though word of the war's finality spread through him like warm love, his face remained steadfast, even sullen.

It had to be -- he would have been killed had he acted otherwise.

"We weren't supposed to have the radio," Kelley said. "If you got caught, you would have been shot. We had to act like we had no inkling whatsoever, like it was just another day. They never did tell us it was over. ...

"Whoever heard of an atomic bomb? We sure as heck never did."

The 14th of this month marked the 60th anniversary of V-J Day. The Japanese surrender came after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9.

Though history books and other mass media make it impossible to forget the war's significance, the foundation of its living history is deteriorating, brick by brick. The tales of soldiers such as Kelley, who sacrificed for their country and fought bravely, are vanishing quickly.

Various estimates place the death rate of World War II veterans between 1,200 and 1,700 per day.

Jerry Newberry, director of communications for the National Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., said it's important to document as many stories of World War II soldiers as possible. Future generations can learn from the efforts made by America's Greatest Generation, he said.

"People recognize that those first-hand stories will be gone forever," Newberry said. He added, "It's certainly sad, and the best we can do is perpetuate their deeds and their memories for future generations."

The National VFW has taken steps in the past to archive the stories of World War II veterans, Newberry said. The VFW has participated in the Veterans History Project, which began in 2000, and serves as a collector for veterans' stories from various conflicts.

Those stories can be found on the Web site, www.loc.gov/vets.

Local VFW posts are recognizing the importance of documenting World War II stories as well.

Fred Box, commander of the Basehor VFW post, said his organization will begin Thursday night implementing an new program, "Getting to Know Your Comrades Better," which includes recording veterans' remembrances of time spent overseas. Three members will speak at each meeting, Box said, beginning with all the World War II members.

"If everyone talks, at one time or another, we'll know what each member did," Box said.

Box said the new program was important, particularly because many of his post's members are World War II veterans and some of them are in failing health.

Al Stuchlik, post adjutant for the Bonner Springs VFW, indicated that his organization is considering expanding ways to recognize World War II veterans. The post already conducts annual events to recognize many veterans, but in light of the death rates, it may be necessary to add more, he said.

Happy Birthday. Welcome Home.

Kelley, one of only 60 men to escape the destroyed U.S.S. Houston, was taken prisoner March 1, 1942, and spent 3 1/2 years as a Japanese prisoner of war.

Routinely beaten, tortured and starved by captors, Kelley and other prisoners were used for slave labor to build the 215-mile Burmese-Thailand Railway, or what's most commonly referred to as the bridge over the River Kwai.

Kelley calls it the "death railway."

"We had little food and no medicine," he said. "We worked 16 to 20 hours a day. The brutality was severe even over a slight infraction. You were worked over with a bamboo pole or a rifle butt."

Today, he said, he's still unsure how he made it out of the jungle alive, particularly because so many of his mates did not.

"It's just hard to believe what happened in that jungle," said Kelley, who at one point weighed less than 98 pounds while working on the railway. "It seems like a dream to me. ... You wonder why you're still here and how in the hell you ever lived to get this old.

"I am very grateful I'm still here. ... I still say, 'Why me, Lord?'"

He was released from captivity Sept. 6, 1945, and celebrated his 26th birthday the following day.

"Those are my two days to get drunk on," Kelley cracked.

Today, Kelley, 84, doesn't recall those war days often. He's gracious enough to comply when asked, but for him, talking about his time in a far-away land, ripe with thuggish brutes, is sometimes difficult.

For reminders, though, he doesn't have to look far.

He and his family have a complete archive of his service days: Numerous photo albums, medals, thorough written and oral histories, and even his helmet from the U.S.S. Houston, rest in a trunk at his Basehor home.

He's been honored on the floor of the Kansas Legislature, and by organizations such as the United States Postal Service and the Chinese embassy.

The recognition is nice, Kelley said, but other service men and women deserve their fair shake as well. Not everyone has been blessed with the attention he's been given, and it's important for their stories to be told before it's too late.

"How often do you hear about World War I?" Kelley said. "It's just been dropped. If somebody doesn't talk about it, this will be, too. It's got to be told so it can carry through."

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