WELLSBURG - It was a welcome fit for heroes at the Brooke County Public Library last week for a group of World War II veterans who experienced a living hell and survived to tell about it.
On June 23 and 24, the library hosted about 20 former American prisoners of war enslaved by Japanese forces in the Philippines during World War II. With their families, about 200 visited in all.
The special guests hailed from all over the country, coming by bus from the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Descendants Group's annual conference, held last week in Pittsburgh.
SPECIAL?EXHIBIT — Former prisoners of war and their families viewed the Brooke County Public Library’s collection of materials devoted to those taken captive in the Philippines during World War II, including survivors of the Bataan Death March. Also visiting were members of the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle group, which provided an escort to the visitors.
They came in four groups over the two days to view the library's unmatched collection of more than 150,000 artifacts and documents related to the more than 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers - about 20,000 of whom never returned home - taken prisoner.
The Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcycle riders from various organizations, escorted the soldiers' charter bus from Pittsburgh to the library and, bearing the Stars and Stripes, lined the sidewalk as the former POWs and their families disembarked, many passing with a salute.
Those coming to greet the visitors included Wellsburg Mayor Sue Simonetti, who provided each a lapel pin representing the "key to the city;" City Manager Mark Henne and state Del. Tim Ennis, D-Brooke.
Wellsburg resident and former POW Ed Jackfert was on hand to welcome the guests. He started the library's repository in 2002.
"I know what you went through. ... (Younger generations) don't realize that you were actually sacrificed by our government," said Jackfert, referring to Allied high command's decision to surrender in hopes of preventing even greater loss of life.
He told the group of the library's campaign to raise about $5 million for a 10,000-square-foot addition to better display its collection. He said in addition to preserving the legacy of those who served, the museum's aim is to demonstrate for future generations the "futility of using war to solve international disputes."
"Our kids in Iraq, in Afghanistan - they're dying. For what?" Jackfert said.
Visiting Friday morning was 90-year-old Eugene Bleil of East Lansing, Mich., the eldest of four generations of his family to make the trip.
He was stationed at Nichols Field in the Philippines and on night duty on Dec. 7, 1941, when a lone bomber flew over and shelled the hangar there, at least four hours before the surprise attack 5,000 miles away at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
"At midnight, we went to get our meal, and just before midnight, we were bombed," he recalled.
After the eventual surrender at Bataan, Bleil endured the legendary Bataan Death March, a grueling, 61-mile hike to a prison camp where the survivors would spend their next three-and-a-half years. "Almighty God got me through," he said.
As he viewed the items on display, Bleil stopped to gaze at a photo of emaciated young men, many of whom he recognized.
"I look at that picture, and that's what I see - dead friends," he said.
His daughter, Claudia Bleil, is helping him get a book published about his experiences. Titled "Consigned to Death Six Times," it's scheduled for release in September. She first urged her father at Thanksgiving dinner about 15 years ago, but he was reluctant, the scars of his ordeal too painful to reopen.
He eventually reconsidered. But Claudia said many members of the descendants group whose former POW loved ones took their stories to the grave are just now starting "to piece together a history they're unaware of."
Also at the library was 87-year-old James Collier of Salinas, Calif., who brought his son, daughter and granddaughter for the occasion. He said he's "one of the younger ones of this bunch," having enlisted at just 16 years of age. After viewing the collection he said, "Everything I see triggers a memory."
He was captured at the Philippine island of Corregidor in the spring of 1942 and transported inside a stiflingly hot train car bound for the Cabanatuan prison camp.
"They packed us in those boxcars like sardines. ... A couple people died standing up, and nobody knew until the train stopped," Collier said.
Collier credits his survival to "pure luck."
"I avoided being at the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. "Of course, that doesn't mean I was in the right place, either."