Tribute to POWs in Bricks and Mortar

National Prisoner of War Museum honors 800,000 Americans once held captive.

There is a way former prisoners of war tell their stories.

They pause briefly, creases deepening around their eyes as they search the banks of their memories. Then they begin - but seldom at the beginning.

There are moments, impressions, symbols. This is where they start the story. They begin with how they tricked the Japanese into allowing them to have a school in the camp or how they drank water from melted snow in soiled buckets or how they never let on that they spoke fluent German during the entire time the Germans had captured them.

For Jesse Moore, a World War II veteran who escaped into Russian territory from a German prison camp, the detail seared in his memory is the white handkerchief that gave him freedom. I've still got it today," he says. "This Russian soldier, we couldn't find a piece of paper, so I pulled out a white handkerchief and he found a pen somewhere. He told us to stay out of the woods and on the road, and he wrote on the handkerchief for safe passage. He said we would not be shot at again - and we weren't."

Now, millions of people will have access to these powerful memories, as the nation's first museum dedicated to retelling the POW story opened yesterday.

It's in Andersonville, a site long synonymous with the tragedy of POWs because it held one of the deadliest Confederate camps in the Civil War.

It opened amid speeches and ribbon-cutting and bunting-covered podiums. Thousands of former POWs gathered for the dedication from every corner of the country and from different wars.

They brought their families, donned their burgundy former POW vests and jackets, and sought out others they had served with. Some were drawn by ties to Andersonville itself: Bonnie Rost, who served as a Navy nurse in Beirut, had a great grandfather who was a prisoner in the Civil War camp.

Many share a similar sentiment for how they survived their ordeal. "You have to believe in God, put your trust in Him. Without that, you have nothing," says Joseph P. Smith, a World War II veteran who escaped from a German prison camp after 11 months.

Cost of freedom

Former POWs and their families also recant a message to those who have never seen capture or served in combat: Freedom cannot be taken for granted.

"Young people need to know that the freedom they have was purchased at a high price," says Mrs. Rost, in Andersonville with her husband, who served in the Korean War.

To the ex-POWs, the museum is overdue recognition for the terrible suffering they endured. "I was tortured. It was par for the course. Anytime [the US] would drop a bomb, they decided to take it out on us," says Lloyd Delahorne, who was held in several camps in Japan and the Philippines during World War II.

The museum itself has not had an easy path. The idea of a POW memorial dates back to 1970, but for nearly two decades political wrangling and fund-raising delayed its creation. More than half of the museum's construction costs were raised through contributions made by former POWs and the sale of POW commemorative coins.

The result of those efforts is a tribute in bricks and mortar that has taken on more meaning to the POWs themselves.

The building itself has gray towers, modeled after a prison's, and houses a series of exhibits. The museum documents what is common about all war prisoners' experiences: capture, isolation, hunger, filth, boredom. Life-sized models of Vietnamese "tiger cages," cane constructions where prisoners where kept, mix with letters captives wrote home from the Civil War, and a delicate replica of a French and American War ship made from prisoners' soup bones.

But it is the prisoners' stories that are the most stirring. More than six hours worth of interviews with former POWs are accessible at museum video stations, where a visitor can choose a war, and a prisoner, to listen to.

"A piece of art can evoke feeling," says Fred Boyles, superintendent of the national historic site. "But nothing tells the story of what these people endured like they can when they sit down and talk to you."

When the former POWs talk, they also remember funny stories. Jesse Moore recalls trying to teach Russian guards to ride a bicycle. "They wanted to learn to ride, but they wouldn't take their guns off, so they kept toppling over."

Others remember the more human touches: a German pilot donating his blood to an American prisoner in need.

Lasting emotion

And the former prisoners remember the moments of hope. "My strongest memory is when the [American] tanks came into Manila," says Betsy Herold Heimke, who spent from age 12 to 15 in Asian prison camps. Her family was living in the Philippines when they were captured. "The first GI I saw was this great big, good looking guy. I could have hugged him. To this day, I can't sing the Star Spangled Banner," she says, tears swelling up in her eyes. "I just get really weepy."

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