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thedrifter
02-10-06, 08:46 PM
Former POW's service saluted, given seven medals related to World War II
BY BILL HESS
Herald/Review

SIERRA VISTA — It was in December 1941 when Benjamin Franklin Williams was a private first class, serving with a New Mexico National Guard unit in the Philippines.

Japan struck what was then a U.S. territory. A few months later, Williams found himself a prisoner of war.

Like many captured in the Philippines, he would spend World War II in Japanese POW camps, where he was forced to work on starvation rations and abused.

Some of his teeth were knocked out by a Japanese guard who used the butt of his rifle on Williams after knocking him to the ground and kicking him.

That and other beatings are not enough for the 87-year-old man to be awarded the Purple Heart Medal. The reason is that the military rules more than six decades ago did not allow a Purple Heart to be given a person wounded or injured while a POW.

But members of the Sierra Vista area Chapter 572 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart are continuing their efforts to have the medal presented to him.

On Wednesday night, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast presented other medals and military service ribbons to a frail and ailing Williams. It was through the efforts of the chapter’s service officer George Timmons that awards were obtained.

Before a small gathering at the Landmark Cafe, Fast said, “Tonight we honor Mr. Williams for his selfless service.”

Like many who have served in America’s armed forces, he gave of himself like soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines continue to do, the general said.

Noting she had the opportunity to visit some of the sacred grounds that American and Filipino troops fought at in the Philippines, Fast remarked, “You could see the bravery of those people.”

The commander of the Intelligence Center and Fort Huachuca was accompanied by Command Sgt. Maj. Franklin Saunders, the senior noncommissioned officer of the center.

Reading a biography of Williams, Saunders said he grew up on a ranch in New Mexico and enlisted in the New Mexico National Guard to “earn some extra money.”

He served with the 200th Coast Artillery, which was activated and sent to the Philippines before the Japanese attack.

As the Japanese gained the upper hand, Williams, like many other soldiers, became an infantryman and continue fighting with the 31st Infantry Division before the American and Filipino troops on the Bataan Peninsula were forced to surrender.

Williams took part in the infamous Bataan Death March, which led to the death by disease and killing by Japanese soldiers.

He eventually ended up at the Cabanatuan POW Camp and was one of more than 500 inmates who were rescued by a special raid by the 6th Ranger Battalion, the Alamo Scouts, on Jan. 30, 1945.

Speaking of the rescue after the ceremony, Williams searched in his memory for his feelings of the event.

It was a confusing. There were many things going on.

“We didn’t know what the hell was taking place,” Williams said.

It took time for everything to sink in.

“The only thing I can really say is we were glad to get out of there,” Williams remarked.

Oleta, his wife of 60 years, was with him Wednesday. He got out of the prison camp in January 1945. They married in October of that year.

“It’s been a good life,” she said as she gently caressed his hand and he her’s.

The couple has called Sierra Vista home for the past 10 years. However, they began visiting the area nearly four decades ago.

Before Fast presented a Bronze Star Medal, World War II Victory Medal and POW Medal and two medals from the Filipino government, the Philippine Defense Medal and the Philippine Liberation Medal, as well as two service ribbons, the Presidential Unit Citation and the Philippine government’s Presidential Unit Citation, she said Williams is an example of a soldier who survived because of his belief in “faith, family and friends.”

Although his experience in the Philippines was horrible, he went on “to live a successful life,” the general said.

With the ceremony, the Army and the U.S. government were making up for lost time, Fast said.

“Finally, we are doing what we should have done (years ago),” she said.

After the awards were pinned on Williams’ coat, Fast praised the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, specifically noting the work done by Timmons.

In appreciation for his activity on Williams’ behalf, she presented an American flag that had been flown in Iraq to the organization’s local chapter.

Timmons, who promised he will continue trying to get a Purple Heart for Williams, was also honored by the state order with an Americanism award and from the national headquarters with the Patriot of the Year award.

Williams’ son Jerry spoke glowingly of his father.

But he choked up when it came time to describe what his father means to him.

“I didn’t have to look very far to see a hero,” Jerry Williams said.

There was a special musical tribute that a doctor composed for the dwindling World War II veterans that caused many in the crowd to wipe away years.

For the son, it was his parents who instilled in their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren respect for others and to live principles of love.

Jordan Reeves, 9, the great-grandson of Ben and Oleta Williams, also attended the ceremony.

He came to Sierra Vista from Denver, getting the week out of school, which Jordan declared to be a good thing.

As for his great-grandfather, the 9-year-old responded with a phrase common to young people of his age: “He’s really cool.”

HERALD/REVIEW senior reporter Bill Hess can be reached at 515-4615 or by e-mail at bill.hess@svherald.com.

Ellie