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Veterans Did Not Let Life’s Events Stop Them

Veteran’s Day is November 11th. We celebrate the sacrifices that our veterans faced on behalf of our country. Please allow me to share the story of a veteran in my life.

December 7th is a solemn reminder of the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. While most of us were not yet born in 1941, stories have passed down from our parents and grandparents about the events of that day, as well as the subsequent changes in the world. But December 8th has great meaning to me, as well.

My grandmother, Thelma, had three brothers. One, Billy Tom Wafer, was a new pilot excited about taking to the skies. Just prior to December 7th, he arrived in the Philippine Islands as part of the 24th Pursuit Squadron. On December 8th, the Philippine Islands were attacked by the Japanese (10 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor), and many of the airplanes were destroyed. As a consequence, Billy Tom was never able to fly as a pilot during World War II.

While I had learned some of the story of my great uncle, Billy Tom, it was not until about a couple of years ago that I learned much more.

I discovered a book that covers the 24th Pursuit Squadron and the events in the Philippines from December 1941 through April 1942. I learned that after Manila was bomb on December 8th, 1941, Billy Tom, and the other American soldiers took to the jungles of the Philippines, converting from pilots to foot soldiers. They fought for the next five months against the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. I learned of the many hardships the soldiers endured—starvation; infections; extraordinary heat; sleeping in craters created by bombs that exploded so close to them. I learned of their eventual capture and their experiences on the Bataan Death March—and many did not survive.

The book ends there. From that point forward, the story is recounted by my grandmother. I was also able to find some historical background by following military records.

After the Bataan Death March, Billy Tom spent time in various prison camps. His family thought he was dead (they thought that for over three years). On three different ships, Billy Tom was shipped from the Philippines to Japan. On the first ship, there were approximately 1,600 prisoners. When that ship was sunk (by the U.S.), the U.S. prisoners were recaptured and put on another ship (I found a U.S.A. military photograph showing the men swimming from the sinking ship to the shore). It too was sunk (again by the U.S.). The soldiers were again recaptured. By the time Billy Tom arrived in Japan in January 1945, out of the 1,600 prisoners, less than 400 had survived. Billy Tom eventually ended up in a prison camp in Korea.

It was only after being placed in Korea, and near the very end of the war, did my grandmother learn that her brother was still alive. His pre-war fiancé, Betty, had already given him up as dead, and had married. Upon learning that he was still alive, Betty, who had only been married a short time, promptly divorced her husband and waited for Billy Tom’s arrival back home.

I share this story with you because I hear many stories like it in my office. While practicing elder law for over 16 years, I began working with World War II veterans, like my granduncle. Eventually, the numbers of those World War II veterans became less and less. And then, we transitioned to the Korean War veterans. Again, more and more of those heroes are no longer with us. And now, it’s Vietnam veterans. But, I don’t want to forget all of those veterans that served even during non-wartime.

I want to comment about all those veterans and about Billy Tom. Many of the veterans are reluctant to share their stores, but when they do, or when I learned about what all my great-uncle had been through, I’m amazed that they were able to come back and be productive and involved in society. Though experiencing great hardship, and great sacrifices for our country, they came back and became integral to the fabric of our society. Despite hardships, they jumped right in and contributed. In many ways, they are the backbone of our country.

Those veterans returning from those foreign wars did not let it change who they were and how productive they would be. They joined back into society.

Let me finish my story about Billy Tom.

In September, 1945, Billy Tom was liberated from the prisoner of war camp. Because of his emaciated state, he was shipped to Cuba, along with many other freed prisoners of war. He spent time there on the beach recuperating and as he said, “fattening himself up”.

He was finally united with my grandmother, his mother, and his brothers.

About six months after returning home, the relationship with Betty was rekindled and Billy Tom and Betty were married. Billy Tom remained in the military and they moved to Langley, Virginia.

Billy Tom died about a year and a half after being freed, doing what he always wanted to do – flying an airplane. Unfortunately, while testing a new “jet”, it exploded in midair during an airshow. My grandmother gave me Billy Tom’s metals, including his Purple Heart.

When Veteran’s Day or December 8th comes around each year, I will always think of Billy Tom, and the tribulations he began to endure on that day in December, 1941, and for the next almost four years. Yet, he never gave up, either as a prisoner of war, or after gaining his freedom. He married his childhood sweetheart and he flew again. He did not let his past stop him from enjoying life and becoming what he wanted to become.

Veteran’s, thank you for your service. Thank you for coming home. So many didn’t.

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