While trying to clear out some of the files in my garage, I came across stories written long ago about three Army men who were heroes in the best sense of the word. A general and a corporal and a Pulitzer Prize winning writer. They made this Memorial Day more memorable for me. I was kin to one, knew one personally and one through friends.
Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor launched America into World War II on three fronts, Europe, North Africa and Asia. That same day the Japanese invaded the Philippines. American forces took a terrible beating. Gen. MacArthur retreated (some say “reassigned himself”) to Australia. His Filipino and American troops were left to “carry on.”
Ken Towery, 19-year old Army man, was one of the troops left on Corregidor. They held out for months before being overrun by the Japanese. He and hundreds of others were shipped to Shenyang, China, where Ken endured three and a half years as a prisoner-of-war. (In the 1980s I spent several interesting times in that home of the Manchus who ruled China for three centuries. )
After the war, Ken’s newspaper investigations uncovered the irregularities of the Veteran’s Land Program in nine south Texas counties. He won a 1955 Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. He later served as the chief of staff for Sen. John Tower. (Ken is my cousin because we have the same great-grandfather.) His book is well worth reading, “The Chow Dipper,” published by Eakin Press, 1994.
Gen. Robert P. Taylor, a native of Henderson, Texas, was also stationed in the Philippines when the war began. Taylor was one of the survivors of the Bataan Death March. He spent 14 weeks in solitary confinement for smuggling food and medicine to patient prisoners. After 42 months the war ended. The Army told his wife he had been killed in action.
His wife had no way to know he was alive and married again and had a child. Chaplain Taylor learned of her new life. They had been living through the war in two worlds and had grown through their sorrow. He thought it best she stay with her husband and child. It takes a big man to walk away from the love of his life. He later re-married and soon became U.S. Air Force Chief of Chaplains.
Onis Brimhall is the third of these military heroes. He and his troops were captured in Indonesia and shipped to Singapore where they were joined with men from many allied countries. These men were marched to the Thailand-Burma border where they became Japan’s slave labor on the infamous railroad to Burma. They did not build just one bridge as in the 1957 movie, “Bridge over the River Kwai,” but many.
Onis spent his post-war years with the Texas State Highway Department in San Antonio. I asked him once about the much-ballyhooed film working on that railroad. He did not like it. For someone who has suffered through the real thing, the reel image was more like a farce. As most films, it was disconnected from reality. There is nothing dramatic, romantic or daring about real war or being a POW.
I had the honor of leading his graveside services at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Feb. 13, 1982.
Memorial Day is for remembering those who gave so much for us. Before you go fishing, golfing, picnicking or shopping, pause and be thankful for the real patriots. That is why we observe Memorial Day.
Britt Towery’s military years were with the 36th Division of the Texas National Guard and Air Force Chaplain, Pingtung, Taiwan. A resident of San Angelo. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.