By Eric Hawkinson
SOLON– The students at Solon High School witnessed history as former prisoners of war told them their harrowing accounts of survival during World War II. It was part of Solon High School’s annual POW/MIA ceremonial luncheon Sept. 20, which honored veterans and POWs Asher Schroeder, 88, and Leland Chandler, 90, as well as those not fortunate enough to have made it home safe.
“Every day is a blessing for me,” said Chandler as he addressed the students. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my wife, and the good Lord.”
The ceremony in the high school’s media center included performances of patriotism by Solon school students. A men’s chorus group sang a rendition of the National Anthem, members of the Solon band played the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and the Solon brass quintet performed the “National Emblem March.” Afterward, the veterans were allowed to share their stories, and students were fixated as they listened to history unfold before them.
Schroeder first spoke, and shared his experience as a prisoner of war with the Germans. Schroeder fought in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, and, after being injured and left behind, was captured and placed in a Nazi prison camp. Luckily, his capture came late in 1944 and five months later he was liberated. During his ordeal, Schroeder said he lived in a large room full of other men, had no facilities or running water, no light, no heat, and was hardly given much to eat or drink. By the time he was released he had lost over 80 pounds.
“The clothes I had on when I was captured were the clothes I had on when I was liberated,” Schroeder said. “Or what was left of them, more appropriately.”
Recently, Schroeder said he came across an article by an Army medic who he learned had fought in the same foxhole during the battle. The article raised the question about the fate of all the wounded left behind during the retreat. Immediately, Schroeder reached out to tell of his survival story.
“That proved to be quite and interesting discovery last week,” Schroeder said.
Then Chandler spoke about his experience– a hellish four-year captivity, working in a Japanese factory.
His story began with the overwhelming 1942 Japanese attacks on his position on the U.S.-controlled island of Corregidor, in the Philippines. After holding out for 30 days, the enemy overran U.S. defenses and Chandler was put into a prison work camp. He still recalls the sight on the beach.
“I was a country boy, born and raised on a farm, and I looked out there over the water and I couldn’t imagine all of those ships,” he said. “I just didn’t believe there were that many in the world. I was only 18-years old, and I was used to a row boat.”
The Japanese outnumbered the Americans 100 to 1, Chandler said, and the fight was soon over. Much of what followed was unspeakable horror. Chandler witnessed U.S. nurses violated by Japanese soldiers, wounded POWs shot and killed, and others beheaded as a punishment.
“They did everything against the Geneva Act that there was,” Chandler said.
He was forced into work at a Japanese steel mill, working 12-hour days, with only a half-bowl of rice to eat. Any man who didn’t learn Japanese had his tongue removed, Chandler said. In 1945, after the U.S. dropped the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chandler’s hell came to an end. But he didn’t leave without enacting one small act of revenge.
Chandler said that before they were rescued, the U.S. military performed an airdrop of essential supplies for the American POWs in Japan. Inside the emergency cases was food, clothing, medical supplies, and of course, American candy. The Japanese guards watched, biting with curiosity.
“In the medical supplies we had loads of chocolate ex-lax®. So took those chocolate ex-lax® and we passed ‘em out [to the guards], and we were generous with them,” Chandler said. “For the next three days, we didn’t see any prison guards.”
Afterward, a brief, symbolic honorarium was held for all the POWs who did not come home to safety. The ceremony then concluded with a benediction and a prayer, after which students were encouraged to interact with the veterans one-on-one. Though small in scale, three generations of Americans gathered to commemorate the stories, and lives that must never be forgotten.