POWs gather to celebrate 65 years of freedom

By Kaylin Krashesky - bio | email

MYRTLE BEACH, SC - World War II Veterans and families met to celebrate 65 years of freedom from prisoner of war camps.

The Hall of Heroes at the Ocean Dunes Resort was certainly the appropriate place for Saturday's POW reunion. People flew in from across the country to attend what organizers think will be the last reunion event for the group.

Bruce Hutchison, with Rolling Thunder, says it's getting harder to plan events as the veterans get older.

Paul Dillon brought his dad, Red, to the event and says he is so proud of his father. Dillon says he loves to sit and talk to with veterans and ask about their experiences.

"It's like walking into a history book," he said. "Just the stories that are in this room are absolutely incredible."

The day's events began with a lot of pictures and hugging.

Joe Ortiz, a POW in Stalag 17, says it's hard to believe it's been 65 years.

"It's marvelous," he commented. "I mean we're alive!"

Ortiz, who was a POW for about 19 months, said he was disappointed when his plane got shot down over enemy territory.

"I thought I was going to keep on flying and flying," he said. "In fact, I was angry that they cut my war short. I wanted to keep on fighting. I was an adventurer, a romantic."

Ortiz has a few laughs when remembering his time in camp.

"The food was not great," he said with a smile.

Ortiz was raised in Mexico and says there was a silver lining: when he went over to fight he only knew about 300 words in English.

"I'm grateful that they taught me how to speak English," he said.

Robert Watson and Pappy Barksdale met in training and were in the same bunk area in camp. They say it was nice to have each other.

"He looked after me - I did sometimes after him," Watson said. "Because you're buddies and you have to help one another out, that's the best you can do."

The pair are still friends today, saying their experience brought them closer.

"You have to feel close to somebody," Watson said.

Lee Jenks says he is still haunted by his time in Stalag 17.

"I have bad dreams about the experience," he said. "I wake up screaming sometimes at night - other times I wake up crying."

Jenks broke his leg in 22 places and was forced to have surgery to survive. He said the hardest part was "they operated with no anesthesia on my leg. The operation lasted 3 1/2 hours."

Jenks went from 182 pounds to 76 pounds when he was in prison camp. Though it was difficult, he does tell some stories with a smile.

"They exchanged nine Germans for me because they thought I was so valuable," Jenks laughed. "Nine Germans! That made me feel good."

Though he says his stories will stay with him forever, "You'll never forget anything about it. It's in you for life."

Edward J. Dostie looked at the crowd with tears in his eyes and said he is believes this is the greatest country.

"I'm glad to be here with all of these guys," he said. "I hope I can keep coming for quite a few more years."

Rolling Thunder gave out golden dog tags with each veteran's name on it, and some even got to ride on the back of a motorcycle.

"As you know, freedom is not free," said Hutchison. "These folks put a lot into it and we're proud of them and we are glad to have them home."

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