By Chris Umscheid
SOLON– America has a debt problem.
Chris Croy, commander of American Legion Post 460 in Solon said a Google search on the Internet for “national debt” provides over 28 million topics related to government spending and deficits. It does not, however address what he calls our nation’s greatest debt: “that which America owes to her veterans.”
Croy addressed the audience at the Solon Middle School’s annual Veterans Day program, held Monday, Nov. 11. Croy said, “we honor more than one million American men and women who have given their lives for their country since our nation’s founding.” It is a debt he says, that can never be repaid. “But our gratitude and respect must last forever.” Veterans often endured long separations from their families, missed the birth of their children, froze in sub-zero temperatures or baked in jungles, “and far too often, lost their lives.”
One man who knows all too well the suffering and sacrifice borne by members of the military is Sergeant Leland Chandler. Sergeant Chandler, a frequent guest at the Solon High School’s annual POW/MIA Recognition Day event, spoke of his time in the Philippines in the early days of World War II, and his time as a prisoner of the imperial Japanese. He also delivered a scathing rebuke of General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the American and Filipino forces at the start of America’s war with Japan. “General MacArthur failed to carry out the written orders of the war college,” Chandler said. “General MacArthur failed to do many things.” He described the Malinda Tunnel, which served as hospital and supply depot, and MacArthur’s headquarters. “He never came out of the tunnel, so we named him ‘Dugout Doug.’” MacArthur’s field commander, General Jonathan Wainwright on the other hand earned praise. Wainwright was put in charge of the forces defending against the Japanese onslaught, estimated at a 100-1 advantage. These Americans and Filipinos came to be known as the “Battling Bastards of Bataan.”
However, eventually the Japanese prevailed and surrender was ordered, leading to the infamous Bataan Death March. This has been well documented in history.
Chandler spoke of something not recorded in the history books, and locked away in the nation’s archives, he said. The group of nurses from the hospital, who had twice refused to leave, opting instead to stay behind and care for the sick and wounded, were brutalized and raped in front of the American troops. “They never spoke of it,” Chandler said, noting he still gets choked up remembering the hell those nurses went through.
Chandler was among 400 of the healthiest prisoners and thus sent to work in a steel mill in Japan for the duration of the war. He said when the U.S. Navy would bomb the mill, while the Japanese dove for cover, he and his fellow POWs would go and eat the Japanese workers’ lunches. “The bombing didn’t bother us one bit,” he said. He also told of the end of the war and the POWs’ first encounter with the then-new B-29 Superfortress bomber. “We saw it fly over, saw the star (the U.S. insignia on the wings and fuselage) so we knew it was ours. Then we saw the bomb bay doors open.” First thoughts of being bombed were soon replaced with wonder as 55-gallon drums were dropped. As they landed and burst open, food and other supplies spilled out. Included were Hershey’s chocolate bars, which the Japanese guards spied with obvious envy. Chandler said somebody noticed another drum contained medical supplies including an abundance of chocolate Ex-Lax, which they happily shared with their captors.
“We didn’t see a single guard for three days,” the Sergeant said to laughter. Once the guards had left for good, the POWs walked to a nearby town and commandeered a train to Yokohama. After trial and error they managed to make it to the city, pulling into the station at full speed and crashing into a retaining wall. Upon extrication from the wreckage, they were treated to “California, here I come” by an Army band.
On a more sober note, Chandler said 50,000 troops started out in the Philippines. Currently only 1,600 remain. At the age of 90 and married for over 60 years, Chandler said, “every day’s a blessing to me.”
“Veterans need each other,” Croy told the audience, “but more importantly, our country needs our veterans. You cannot fight a war without veterans. While the utopian ideal of a society without war is appealing, let us not forget wars have freed slaves, stopped genocide, and toppled terrorists.” Croy added America would not be the country it is today without its veterans.
The post commander asked those in attendance to say, thank you when they see a veteran. “Veterans encompass all walks of life,” he noted and added, “you can show your support by hiring a veteran, visiting the (Iowa City) Veterans Administration Hospital, or donating to a veterans’ program.”
He also addressed the disproportionate number of homeless veterans. “Too often, today’s tattered citizen on the street is yesterday’s toast of the town in a crisp uniform with a shiny row of medals. This is hardly the thanks of a grateful nation. We can do better. We must do better.”
“Anybody who has honorably worn the United State Military uniform has, ‘The Right Stuff,’” Croy said, quoting the title of a 1979 book by Tom Wolfe about the Mercury 7 astronauts. “Remember that, the next time you see a homeless person on the street, a man in a wheelchair, or a difficult co-worker who experiences Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Croy pointed out that fewer than 10 percent of the population can claim the title of veteran. “We must ask ourselves as a nation, are we serving our veterans even half as well as they have served us?”