published Monday, April 16th, 2012

Ranks of former prisoners of war dwindling

Bill Cooper listens to a speaker on Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Ex-Prisoner of War group held at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Membership numbers for the national, state and local groups are dwindling as veterans reach their 90s.
Bill Cooper listens to a speaker on Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Ex-Prisoner of War group held at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Membership numbers for the national, state and local groups are dwindling as veterans reach their 90s.
Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse.
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His plane was on fire and going down fast, but the pilot aimed the nose north, desperately trying to make it to Sweden and out of Nazi territory.

Erhardt Barnes was the radio operator and gunner in that B-17 Flying Fortress on Oct. 6, 1944. The waist and turret gunners both died, struck by German anti-aircraft bullets.

Barnes and the remaining five crew members bailed out and quickly were captured by German soldiers near a small town outside Berlin. They were interrogated, loaded on trains and were sent back and forth across the country over the next five months.

They were prisoners of war and spent a brutally cold and starving winter in a POW camp in Poland.

“It was kind of rough,” said Barnes, now 95.

He and others who have shared similar experiences gathered at the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel Saturday for the American Ex-Prisoners of War, Tennessee Chapter annual meeting.

National membership in the organization has declined from a high of more than 33,000 in 1991 to just under 16,000 last year. There are 329 members in the Tennessee chapter, a little more than half the number 15 years ago. About a dozen POWs came to Saturday’s meeting.

Many factors contribute to the declining numbers, such as the age of veterans, fewer large-scale conflicts and the nature of current wars. But for group leaders such as Tennessee’s head Bonnie Weatherford and National Adjutant Clydie Morgan, one thing is clear — the living history POWs represent will be lost if these groups cease to exist.

  • photo
    Bo Cline, 92, a former ex-prisoner of war and commander of the Chattanooga chapter, sits at the front of the room on Saturday, April 14, 2012, at the annual meeting of the American Ex-Prisoner of War group held at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel. Membership numbers for the national, state and local groups are dwindling as veterans reach their 90s.
    Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Changing Wars, Attitudes

Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Rosemary Mariner teaches military history at the University of Tennessee’s Center for the Study of War and Society.

Mariner grew up in military-infused San Diego during the Vietnam War and joined up in 1973, later becoming an A-7 Corsair jet pilot. Neighbors on her block and early military mentors who had been POWs shaped her growth as a military officer, she said.

A student of U.S. wars, Mariner said the types of wars and nature of combat and technology have created fewer situations in which service members are captured.

An estimated 16 million Americans served during the country’s four-year involvement in World War II. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 130,201 Americans were taken prisoner.

More than 1 million Americans have fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ongoing since 2001, but the department shows only nine American military members had been taken as prisoners of war as of last year.

Mariner said World War II was the closest to “total war” the planet has ever come and that conventional, large-scale battles put aviators and ground troops in close contact with the enemy.

The counterinsurgency nature of the current wars means close contact, house-to-house fighting happens on a much smaller scale. Aviators also have much better defensive technology than did pilots in the past.

Vietnam pilots would tell her that, at low altitudes, especially in helicopters, their aircraft could be taken down by rifle fire. Today’s fighter planes and bombers can attack from miles away, and many missions are conducted by unmanned drones.

“The good news is there are fewer POWs,” she said.

But some of the bad news is the nature of enemies. During World War II, for the most part, Germany followed the Geneva Accords, signed in 1929, that prevented gross mistreatment of war prisoners. The Japanese, however, never signed the accords and, as a result, many captured in the Pacific campaigns were starved, tortured or killed.

In current anti-terrorist conflicts, the enemies are not nations but groups that will ransom prisoners or conduct publicized killings of POWs as propaganda.

Mariner applauded the work of Vietnam-era wives who pushed for greater POW and missing-in-action recognition by the public, forming groups such as American Ex-POWs to promote their goal.

If POWs disappear, Mariner said, people may have a tendency to forget the “high price of these wars.”

“I think we need to be aware of the costs of this, and the POW experience is certainly part of that,” she said.

  • photo
    Bo Cline, 92, a former ex-prisoner of war and commander of the Chattanooga chapter, sits at the front of the room on Saturday, April 14, 2012, at the annual meeting of the American Ex-Prisoner of War group held at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel. Membership numbers for the national, state and local groups are dwindling as veterans reach their 90s.
    Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Losing History

Weatherford’s husband, Teddy Frank Weatherford, was a World War II POW who rarely spoke of his ordeal.

“My husband was held for 13 months by the Germans,” she said. “He did not talk about them either, but he had nightmares, and that’s how I learned about his experience in POW camps.”

When he died in 2003, she became more involved in the organization while living in Texas and later became president of the Tennessee chapter when she moved to the Knoxville area.

Weatherford isn’t alone in her allegiance to the group and its cause. More than half of the current members are either spouses or relatives of POWs.

That’s where she and Morgan see a chance to increase their numbers and awareness — through the family members.

Chattanooga Chapter President Bo Cline lived as a POW during part of World War II. In Saturday’s ceremony, he turned over his command to his daughter.

“She’s younger and more vigorous,” the 92-year-old veteran said in an interview before the meeting.

He, too, rode a crashing bomber plane, the B-26, over German skies until he hopped out at about 3,000 feet with the crew and spent 61⁄2 months in captivity.

Cline has gone to the National POW/MIA Recognition Day in Andersonville, Ga., site of an infamous Civil War POW camp. There he’s been among friends who have shared experiences and understand the past.

But he said he wonders who’ll keep those stories alive when he and others are gone.

“It’s ancient history now, and I don’t even think they touch it much in school anymore,” Cline said. “I think it’s awful.”

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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