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Ex-POWs gather for annual convention

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Posted: Friday, May 27, 2005 12:00 pm | Updated: 3:15 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Jimmie Ferguson

Killeen Daily Herald

A bowl of turnip or rutabaga soup sprinkled with weevils and a piece of bread were their daily ration.

"They used to say you tell how long a fellow was a prisoner of war by the way they ate his soup," said ex-POW Mel Stevens, 81, of Fort Worth. "If they gave him a bowl of soup and he looked at it and made a run for the latrine, you knew he was a fresh prisoner.

"It had bugs in it, and after awhile, he would get over in a corner and pick the bugs out and eat the soup. That's when he is beginning to get adjusted to prison life," Steven said. "The old timers, they would sit there eating, paying no attention to the bugs. If they see one of those bugs crawling to the side of their bowl, they would say, 'get back in there, you little devil; you make good seasoning."'

"You eat the bugs. That was your vitamins," interjected ex-POW Orby Ledbetter, 84, of Victoria, who was reminiscing Thursday with Steven, as 90 ex-POWs, their wives, widowers and family members rendezvoused at the Plaza Hotel in Killeen for their 33rd annual State Convention of the American Ex-Prisoners of War.

As the other members were arriving at the hotel for registration, Ledbetter and Stevens had already found a spot to sit and chat.

Ledbetter, a member of the 36th Division National Guard, spent 19 months as a POW after he was captured Sept. 9, 1943,

"I was in the first wave and took my platoon over an 8-mile gap between the American Army and the British army," said Ledbetter, who joined the National Guard when he was 16 years old. "I got about four miles out, and a German tank battalion ran over us and took us as prisoners."

When he was captured, Ledbetter said, he weighed 155 pounds, and when he was released he was 100 pounds.

"The last six months were the worst. Nobody had any food, including the Germans," he said. "We all got a bowl of rutabaga soup or turnip soup every day. That's all I ate for 19 months.

"I wore the same uniform 19 months and didn't even get it dirty," laughed Ledbetter. "It didn't even smell."

Stevens, a member of the 101st Airborne Division, said it was no easier or any different for him during his 6 months as a POW.

The combat engineer said his unit went into Holland by glider. Before they left Holland, they went on a reconnaissance mission near the Rhine River, where they were attacked by enemy mortars. Shrapnel struck Steven in his head, and he was severely wounded and taken prisoner of war.

"They couldn't get us back to our lines, and the German captured us," he said.

Steven said he should have been killed and was lucky to be here today, as he pointed out the scars on his head. "It tore my helmet up," he said.

The veterans had a lot more to say at this reunion, hosted by the Cen-Tex Chapter 1, commanded by Ruby Williams of Temple.

Williams, 79, is the widower of Warren A. Williams, who was captured during World War II in Java at the beginning of the war and remained a POW for 3 years.

At that time, Williams said, they were not married. "We were married a short time after he got back," said Williams, noting her husband was born in Florence and was raised in Killeen.

Ex-POW Bob Bearden of Harker Heights said it's not unusual for widowers of POWs to lead chapters, because many of the POWs are dead.

"The next-of-kin actually got the whole thing going in the first place," said Williams, who credits Bearden with getting the convention to Killeen. "The reason there is an organization is because of two widowers in World War II got together and got things going with an organization called, 'The Defenders of the Town of Corregidor.

"And later they expanded it and it became the American Ex-Prisoners of War, to encompass all conflicts," Williams said. "So, it grew out of next-of-kin getting things going. And now, that is what's left, the next-of-kin."

Williams said she has 63 members in the Cen-Tex Chapter.

Of the 90 members attending this weekend's convention, Morris Barker, the commander of the Department of Texas American Ex-Prisoners of War, said all were from the World War II era except one Korean veteran.

Barker pointed out that the highlight of today's activities will be at 10 a.m. when soldiers from Fort Hood will present the colors to the ex-POWs at the opening ceremony at the Plaza Hotel.

Beginning at 1:30 p.m., the guests will attend presentations by Ginger Raney, the Ex-POW coordinator; James Cooper, the National commander of the Ex-POWs; Jeff Milligan, the VAMC acting deputy director of Temple; and then their respective officers and commanders.

From 6 to 7 p.m., they will be entertained by the Fil-American Dance Troupe in the Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel.

At 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Col. Tom McNish, M.D., and chairman of the VA POW Advisory Committee, will address the ex-POWs. At 2 p.m., they will rendezvous at the POW/MIA Memorial in front of Darnall Army Community Hospital on Fort Hood for a memorial service, followed by a windshield tour of the post.

At the banquet that begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Plaza Hotel, Gen. Robert M. Shoemaker will be the keynote speaker.

Contact Jimmie Ferguson at jferguson@kdhhnews.com

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