POWs share stories of brutality, faith and survival with local schoolchildren
As a prisoner of war, William Funchess saw deprivation and brutality during three freezing years held by Chinese and North Korean guards. That first winter, more than 1,600 Americans died.
Funchess could easily tell who was “giving up” because they had stopped picking lice from their bodies.
Still, it took a visit to a doctor in the 1990s to finally get over his terrors, cathartically writing his experiences down and working through them with pen and yellow note pad.
“He said to me, ‘40 years is a long time to have nightmares,’ ” Funchess recalled.
Funchess was one of several story-tellers in a panel discussion Friday on “Internment in Times of War” held onboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown at Patriots Point.
Citadel graduate and Air Force pilot Quincy Collins remembers being held in a tiny cell in North Vietnam after he was shot down in 1965. Despite his captivity, his seven years as a prisoner reinforced his faith, even in the darkest hours.
“God is real,” he said. “He is real and he came down into that cell with me many times when I was ready to give up.”
Mary Murakami was only 16 years old in 1942 when the U.S. government said her family’s Japanese ancestry made them potential enemies. Like tens of thousands of other West Coast families, she was uprooted from her San Francisco home and shipped to a camp on a dry lake bed in Utah.
Today, she sees parallels in what happened to her and the growing level of prejudice aimed at Muslims in America.
“Hysteria and discrimination can change everything in an instant,” she said.
Also joining the group was Charleston resident Joe Engel, who was a teenager when Nazis stormed into Poland and sent the Jewish youth to the death camp at Auschwitz. He survived and escaped by later jumping from a fast-moving train that was shipping detainees away from the oncoming Red Army. Rounding out the speakers was Ned Montgomery, son of a POW held by the Japanese.
Friday’s event was scheduled to bring together the live voices behind disappearing stories of detainment to an audience of local schoolchildren. One of the lessons taught was that the reasons for captivity can take on many forms, be it prejudice, wartime brutality or outright extermination.
The speakers said their will to survive, coupled with the hopes of being reunited with loved ones, fortified their strength.
“That human feeling in you that says ‘I’ve got to make it,’ ” Collins said of his time in Vietnam. “That survival mode that tells you, ‘Here’s what I’ve got to do to make it.’ ”
Collins today finds humor in what happened to him when he was captured and sent to the infamous North Vietnamese camp dubbed “the Hanoi Hilton.”
“As the world’s greatest fighter pilot, it was embarrassing to be shot down,” he said, drawing laughter.
Funchess was captured in 1950 and became one of the longer held Americans from the Korean War. He turned his story into the 1997 book “Korea POW — A Thousand Days of Torment.”
“After I finished, the nightmares stopped,” he told the crowd via videolink from his home in the Upstate of his writing experiment.
Engel, who jumped off a train and hid in the snows of Czechoslovakia, eventually became a resistance fighter.
He said most portrayals of the Holocaust fall short. “Nothing came close to what happened in the death camp, Auschwitz and Birkenau,” he said.
Montgomery delivered one of the lesser-told stories of captivity: not knowing whether a relative is dead or alive. His father, who had survived two POW ship sinkings, died in February 1945.
Murakami said she has no resentful feelings about living in Camp Topaz, Utah, saying it was the Japanese way back then to respect the government. If officials felt they needed to be rounded up, “authority was always right,” she said.
The real prejudice emerged, she said, after she was released from the camp and tried to re-settle in the San Francisco area as the war wound down and her family had difficulty finding a place to live. “I didn’t feel any discrimination until we were out of the internment,” she said.
Students said they found relevance in the stories, including how extreme prejudice can be targeted on minorities such as Murakami and Engel.
“Even though they were tormented, some people can live on through things,” said Kira Irick, an eighth-grader at Palmetto Scholars Academy.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.