The old men gathered one night in a meeting room at the Disabled American Veterans Hall in Woodland Hills and, one after another, introduced themselves by announcing when they became prisoners of war.
“Frank Romero,” said the first to rise. “Captured in Anzio.”
“Del Brown, Dec. 22, 1941,” said another. “I was captured two weeks after the war started. I spent most of the war in Japan.”
“Willie Goldsmith, captured Dec. 22, 1944, in The Bulge.”
On they went, carrying out a regular ritual at the monthly meeting of the San Fernando Valley Chapter of American Ex-Prisoners of War, a nationwide group of veterans, mostly from World War II, who spent part of their youths in the shadow of guard towers or behind the sharp steel of concertina wire.
In their youth, they battled Nazis and the Japanese. Now they battle American bureaucracy, fighting to preserve or improve their medical benefits. The 15 ex-POWs and their wives spent much of the evening discussing the Veterans Administration and service at VA hospitals.
But the men also battle, in their minds, demons who followed them home from Omaha Beach and Palermo, Corregidor and Bataan.
The distance of four decades has not made it any easier to deal with the war. Many times, they said, the opposite is true.
“I think it has a tendency to get worse as you get older,” Brown, a slight man with sad eyes, told a visitor. “When you keep something covered up for 40 years, when it starts coming out, it hurts.”
Brown was 21 when he was captured at Wake Island. He wasn’t even supposed to fight. He was a civilian construction worker, helping build an air base. But the civilians had to join the 300 Marines at the front lines when the Japanese attacked the day after Pearl Harbor.
“We only had 1,500 people there,” he said almost apologetically. “We fought them off two weeks.”
At his home in Van Nuys, tucked in a box in the garage, are small mementoes of his days in a Japanese prison camp: A pair of chopsticks, a homemade wooden pipe and a pouch of 45-year-old tobacco, a prized luxury back then. They ate mostly rice for four years, he recalled. He weighed 95 pounds when he was liberated.
These days, Brown goes to therapy sessions with other POWs. Sometimes, the men are in tears. “When you see people killed for no reason at all,” he said, “it just doesn’t leave you.”
There were no tears at their recent meeting. After a brief welcome by Commandant George Bergez they called roll, sounding off the names of the ex-POWs and their wives. The wives, Bergez explained, are full members of the organization. “We figured they suffered as much as we did with our little antics,” he said.
The men and women answered to their names, except for John Yosko, who busied himself organizing the night’s raffle.
“He can’t hear,” someone said.
They agreed to count Yosko as present and accounted for.
Bergez moved through an agenda of routine business, asking now and then for a committee report. The chapter has $811.66 in its bank account, the treasurer said.
But the treasury has just received a donation of $100, said Bergez’s wife, Barbara. She read the card accompanying the donation from a woman whose husband once served as commandant: “Thank you for your love and prayers during Al’s illness and death.” The members nodded slightly to acknowledge the gift.
Whether discussing medical benefits or the Veterans Administration, the men seemed defensive, suggesting again and again that the government didn’t care about POWs. In the world of veterans, the men insisted, World War II POWs are outcasts, unlike the honored former prisoners from Vietnam.
The attitude goes back to the days right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dale Stephens, whose plane was shot down over Germany, explained by recalling a conversation with a pretty young woman he met in college after the war. He mentioned his time in the service.
“You were a POW?” she asked.
“Why did you surrender?”
Forty years later, the words still sting. “Her attitude was we really should have fought to the death,” he said. For many years, he never mentioned his time in the prison camp.
The men and women in the San Fernando Valley Chapter of American Ex-Prisoners of War say they are still fighting for self-respect. They eagerly talk to a stranger about the war and pull out mementoes and news clippings.
Joe Landers of Mission Hills still has his dog tags and ID photo from Stalag 17B, the German prison camp which held 4,300 Americans, most of them “flyboys” shot down in bomber raids. Landers was shot down over Vienna.
With his white hair, chubby face and cheery smile, he bears little resemblance to the serious young man in the photo holding up a chalkboard with his prison identification number. It’s hard to believe it’s the same man.
But then he recounts the day his B-24 was shot out of the sky and how his boots somehow flew off his feet as he parachuted toward a freshly plowed field. His legs were so badly injured the Germans left him behind when they evacuated Stalag 17B as the Russians approached.
The details pour out, vivid and fresh. Clearly, for Landers and many others, the young men they were will always be behind the wire.