Those who paid 'ultimate sacrifice' remembered

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   Memorial Day is more than sunny skies and picnics. It's a time to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to keep America free.
   According to a Jan. 1, 2003, report distributed by American Ex-Prisoners of War in Arlington, Texas, just over 17,000 American soldiers died while prisoners of war during U.S. conflicts, including World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Figures from Afghanistan and the current war with Iraq are not in.
   Of those POWs who died, the majority, or 14,072, occurred during WWII. Another 2,701 died in Korea, 147 during WWI, and 64 in Vietnam.
   As of Jan. 1 of this year, 86,178 of POWs out of the 125,206 surviving captivity are now deceased. The annual mortality rate for POWs from World War II is 9 percent, followed by Korea (7 percent), Vietnam (5 percent), and Gulf War (3 percent).
   More than 92,000 Americans were listed as either lost in combat or missing in action. Their remains were never recovered. The largest percentage -- 78,773 -- were from WWII.
   Wright Swanay, 83, and William E. "Sonny" Mottern, 82, of Elizabethton were two POWs who made it through the German prison camps. There aren't many of their kind left. Their stories begin in today's edition of the Star.
   Both men are included in the book, "A Gathering of Eagles," by Col. Jimmie Dean Coy, a book which lists advice from 345 distinguished American leaders such as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and Gen. Colin Powell.
   Swanay spent nearly a year as a prisoner of war. He was liberated about midday on April 29, 1945. "The next day in Berlin, Hitler killed himself. I knew he'd be disappointed when I got liberated, but I didn't think he'd take it that bad," Swanay said jokingly.
   But being a POW was no laughing matter for either Swanay or Mottern.
   "At Frankfurt, Germany, a prison camp I was in, we had an average of four of our POWs dying a day and we had to bury them," Mottern said. "They'd call 16 men out. It took eight to carry them about 25 feet and then we'd have to change to the other eight. Everybody was so weak.
   "They died from malnutrition. Of course, they put something else on the cross where they buried them. I try to remember them every Memorial Day. It's a special day for them," he said.
   Mottern and Swanay often talk to elementary school students and senior citizens. "The message we want to try to give is 'Freedom is not Free.' It's not the cost of freedom, it's the price we had to pay," Mottern said.
   In "A Gathering of Eagles," Mottern says it was his faith and Christian upbringing that helped him survive the POW camp. "My faith became a mighty bulwark against the brutality, cold, hunger, forced marches, boxcar rides, and bombing I endured."
   Swanay said in the book that his experience as a POW instilled in him a sense of duty that has motivated him all his life. He continues to work as a Veterans Service Officer on the national level, helping fellow veterans obtain their benefits. "In serving others I feel I have served my Creator," he said.
   Each Memorial Day, Swanay tries to visit Happy Valley Memorial Park to pay his respect to three friends shot down during World War II whose bodies were never found.
   "There are memorials to each of them down at Happy Valley. John Keys, who I went to school with, was shot down in France. He lived up Sycamore Street, just beyond City Hall." Keys was shot down Aug. 8, 1944, in France while flying his 28th mission.
   "Robert Lee Davis lived where the Feed and Seed store is. Robert Lee was shot down at sea on July 14, 1942." He was 21 years old.
   "Jimmy Peoples lived on Bishop Lane. Jimmy was also a member of the Navy flying crew and he was shot down at sea, too," Swanay said. Peoples was buried at sea on June 14, 1943.
   "I just feel like it's my duty to visit those [memorials] when I go down there to my mom's and dad's grave on Memorial Day. I go over there and I visit each one of them. I just think, 'but for the grace of God ...' and 'Why was I spared?' And I just thank God that I was spared.
   "I feel like it's my duty to remember them. That's what Memorial Day is all about," he said.