Memorial Day…. it was a solemn day, and yet a day for great appreciation. “I don’t think there’s a military person here who served in a war, who wouldn’t go back and do the same thing for our County and our Country despite knowing the rough times and the evil sadistic torture some went through,” stated a Veteran of Craig County.
Craig County citizens honored veterans by conducting a Memorial Day Service on the Courthouse Lawn on Monday, May 29. The flyer stated that the day was to, “Honor the memory of those who courageously made the ultimate sacrifice for the noble cause of freedom and peace.”
This year was supposed to start with the ringing of the courthouse bell, however, the rope broke before it rang. Some mentioned that the silence almost told a story of its own. It was as if a “hush” came across the lawn, creating an immediate depth of sincere respect and honor.
Craig Valley VFW Post #4491 presented the colors and brought the flags in honor of those fallen soldiers who never came back home. Chaplain Ken Looney gave the invocation. “Freedom does cost and we ‘thank you’ for bringing us through these times,” he concluded.
The Pledge of Allegiance was led by Craig Valley’s Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and beautiful patriotic songs sung by the New Castle United Methodist Church Choir. As they sang, a couple of Marines gave their ‘whoop’ after their alma mater ended.
A long time Craig resident and World War II Veteran, Berlin Huffman was the special speaker. “Mr. Huffman is someone our children can look up to,” Melinda Johnson said in the introduction. “Not only did he serve our country, but he serves our Lord also.”
Huffman shared that Memorial Day was first called Decoration Day as people decorated the gravesites with flowers and flags. Later the name was changed as well as the date.
Huffman started his message with a short and strong fact. “In war, newscasters paint a different scenario than what is real.” He then proceeded with stories of American prisoners of war to prove his statement true, yet heart wrenching.
During Pearl Harbor, his friend and a pilot by the name of Ted Harris was shot down and captured in Vietnam. “He was a strong man, both mentally and physically,” Huffman shared. “Though he was tortured, he did not break the ‘Code of Conduct’ that meant a captured soldier was only to give his name, rank and serial number.”
They put him in a cement box that was too little for him. “He said he couldn’t move and could barely breath, but he did not consent,” Huffman continued. “When they finally opened the box for him to get out, he couldn’t get out as he was too numb and stiff so they had to pour him out.” After a while Harris was able to roll over and finally get around and they continued to torture him in many other ways, Huffman said.
“They finally told him that if he wasn’t going to talk that he wasn’t worth keeping and feeding him rice to keep him alive so they were just going to shoot him,” Huffman explained. “So, they made him dig his own grave and they gave him a shovel.” Huffman’s voice quivered as he struggled to continue his story.
He shared that Harris couldn’t get excited about digging his own grave so he didn’t do anything. “Some people use to call workers like that a WPA, ‘we piddle around’, Huffman said. “But it saved some skin at times and you got to live a little longer that way.”
However, he said that Harris soon concluded that he could either die of starvation, because if he didn’t dig, he didn’t get any rice. On the other hand, they would shoot him if he dug his grave. He chose to be shot so he started digging. “It didn’t take long, only about 10 days or two weeks,” Huffman said.
They called in the rifle squad. “Harris said when he looked down those rifle barrels a hundred thoughts went through his mind…. first, that his wife and kids would never know what had become of him,” Huffman said.
An unbelievable thing happened. Every rifle snapped, but there were no bullets shot. “Harris said that the soldiers were ‘chewed out’ for not loading their rifles and they had better not let it happen again, or else.”
Huffman continued that one day they had Harris hanging by his thumbs, enduring so much pain but trying not to pass out. As Harris looked over at an area where enemy officers were sitting, an Air Force Colonel was sitting in the midst of them smoking a cigarette and talking. “Harris knew the Colonel had violated the Code of Conduct as he continued to be tortured and the Colonel watched,” Huffman explained.
Eventually, both officers were sent home. The Colonel did not get court marshaled, which greatly upset Harris, but Harris retired in Oregon and died at 86.
In the Vietnamese war, another pilot – Bud Day – was shot down. Huffman explained that he had a broken arm from the bailout but during the torture, they broke his other arm. “I don’t know if you can imagine how much of a task it was for him to feed himself or to squat over a trench to do his business,” Huffman explained. “Day had a tough row to hoe.”
Also in prison was John McCain, who was shot down on his 23rd bombing mission over Vietnam on October 26, 1967. McCain is known to say that he “stopped a missile with his aircraft”. He had three broken limbs from the bailout but had also been bayoneted when he was dragged up on the shore of the lake.
Huffman said that when the enemy found out that his father was an Admiral, they eased up on the torture they were giving him and started delving out some privileges. Still, he served five-and-a-half years behind bars as they were going to let him go early but he told them he would go, only if the others went before him. The Vietnamese responded with, “McCain, you will regret that decision and they re-broke at least one of his bones.”
Day was then put in the same cell as McCain. “McCain set both of Day’s arms and splinted them with bamboo shoots,” Huffman said. “Years later, when the medics looked at Day’s arms, they said McCain should be given a doctor’s certificate, saying that he did a pretty near perfect job.”
Day was the senior ranking officer among the prisoners at Hanoi Hilton. “To me, that is one of the toughest jobs in the world,” Huffman said holding back emotions. “He stood up for his men, trying to get them clothes, better food and would often take the torture for his men, saying they did something on his rules when they didn’t.”
Day was also tortured by being beaten by a broken fan belt. “He said he started counting the strokes as it ripped his skin off and he got to 65 and thought he was going to die, so he decided, ‘what is the use of counting?’” Huffman said. “His knees had no more skin on them and you could see the bare bones.”
In 1973 all the prisoners at the Hanoi Hilton were evacuated and flown to Clark Air Base outside on Manila in the Philippines. “There were 350 prisoners, not including the 50 that they feel were tortured to death,” Huffman said.
He also said they believe there are about 50 military personnel that died from torture, but there were no records at that time, only memories of friends not heard from again.
Later, Day was substantiated by over 100 prisoners and awarded The Congressional Medal of Honor; the highest military award can be given, for action against the enemy. During his captured time Day escaped, trying to get information to home base, but they caught up with him and shot him and took him back.
Day finally got out, retired, but died about 15 years later. McCain had stated that he was surprised Day died as he had survived horrendous torture in prison camp and only lived because he had a tremendous drive to live. “McCain said he thought death could never catch up with him,” Huffman said with what seemed like tears in his eyes. “But, it did.”
Lance P. Cjohn was also shot down and broke his leg. Huffman said he was able to hide in the vegetation for a while, but one day while scooting on his bare back with his good leg (as he had already worn his clothes off his back from scooting), he accidently pushed himself over a cliff to where enemy guards took him prisoner. “He used his belt buckle and teeth and whatever he could find to file the fence during the night,” Huffman explained. “During the day, he had to make sure that it looked normal.”
Cjohn escaped but, due to his bum leg, left a trail that was easily followed and he was captured again. After torture, he died of pneumonia. He also was also nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor.
“Day and Cjohn are the only two who have ever been awarded The Congressional Medal of Honor in their action against the enemy as prisoners of war,” Huffman said.
Huffman spoke of another pilot who was shot down. “Newt Grubbs was never heard of again so Evie Grubbs doesn’t know if she is a wife or a widow,” Huffman said with tears.
“I speak on behalf of the Craig County Veterans, both living and the ones who fought their last battle,” Huffman concluded. “We thank you for your observance of Memorial Day and your presence here this morning.”
Also, President Harry S. Truman’s quote was on the flyer; “Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.”
The Craig County Memorial Service ended with the VFW Post #4491 playing ‘Taps’. As some wiped their tears, others stood firmly at attention, as if to say, “This IS my country, Land of my choice…This IS my country, hear my proud voice!”