Museums are seeing an increase in donations and oral histories from the swell of former U.S. prisoners of war eager to leave their legacies. But museum officials still worry that too many POWs approaching their late 80s and 90s will go to their graves without publicly telling their stories.
The National Prisoner of War Museum, in Andersonville, Ga., said it expects to have a 40 percent increase in artifacts, journals and other donations from former POWs this year compared to last year. Primarily, those contributions are coming from those who fought in World War II.
The number of U.S. POWs in World War II, about 130,000, dwarfs those from other wars. There were approximately 7,000 in the Korean War and about 725 in the Vietnam War. With World War II having ended more than 60 years ago, the total number of U.S. POWs is shrinking fast.
Bob Patrick, director of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center, said many aging POWs are just getting around to publicly telling their tales.
"Some of them will never get around to it," Patrick said. "It's too difficult. Some of them don't want to open the door again."
When POWs returned from World War II, many kept their stories to themselves because they were afraid of being stigmatized, they didn't think there was anything unique or unusual about their stories or they wanted to forget about the past and move on with their lives.
"Even now," said Alan Marsh, cultural resources specialist at the Andersonville museum, "family members have often not heard the whole story."
Army Air Corps navigator Carl Hedin's plane was shot down over France during World War II, and he was held in a German prison camp for more than two years. Hedin, of Dallas, died in April at age 86.
Hedin's widow, Gretchen Hedin, said her late husband had been writing a log about his POW experiences — from losing weight for lack of food to organizing camp rallies in which the prisoners would shout in unison for the Americans or Russians to free them.
"He never did finish it," she said, adding that he left some recordings in hopes his granddaughter will do so.
In the meantime, she's donating to the museum her husband's photos of the camp as well as miniature soldiers and other objects carved from camp soap.
"He wanted to inform people about what went on and not just have it forgotten," she said.
The American Ex-Prisoners of War, an Arlington, Texas-based association of former POWs and their families, has lost about 100 chapters over the past five years, shrinking to 250, primarily because World War II members have died or become physically unable to organize or attend meetings, national adjutant Clydie Morgan said.
Members often speak in public and to schoolchildren, Morgan said.
"We'll lose the presence of someone who went through these experiences," she said. "The education they hold, the information they have — that's what we're going to miss. There is nothing like the real thing."
Glendale James, of the Dayton suburb of Kettering, was captured by the Germans and spent six months in work and prison camps. When James, now 84, was freed in 1945, he weighed only 98 pounds.
"They tried to starve you to death," he said.
When he returned home, he never discussed his experiences. He kept to himself the memories of narrowly escaping death at the hands of a firing squad, being transported with fellow POWs in boxcars like sardines and surviving on milk, greens and potatoes he could scavenge.
It was only when James started meeting with fellow former POWs 20 years ago that he began to open up — and his POW-charged nightmares all but disappeared, his wife said.
"He would carry on like he had been beaten," Wanda James said, recalling her husband's nightmares. "He wouldn't talk about it when I would get him awake."
Marsh, the cultural resources specialist, said that when POWs go to the museum to record their oral histories, it often brings staff members to tears.
"It is a very emotional experience to me," said Marsh, whose museum has almost 1,000 oral histories. "They're reliving what happened to them."
Mike Jackson, founder of the Tipp City, Ohio-based American Veterans Institute, said POWs offer a different perspective on the history of war.
"The POWs lived it every minute of every day," Jackson said. "They were not able to separate themselves from the conflict, and they suffered from that. When they do die out, it's a whole era of history that goes away."