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Post renamed in honor of vet

Laughs, tears and remembrances of Norman “Jack” Matthews all were part of a ceremony held Sunday in his honor.

About 75 of Matthews’ family, friends and fellow American Legion members gathered at the Suffolk Elks Lodge to pay tribute to Matthews’ life and rename the Suffolk post of the American Legion in his honor. The post now is named the Norman “Jack” Matthews Post 57.

“The American Legion meant a lot to my dad,” Jackie Young, Matthews’ daughter, said through tears at the ceremony. “He would be very proud at this moment.”

Senior Master Sgt. Matthews, a member of the U.S. Air Force and lifelong Suffolk resident, was a prisoner of war for 41-1/2 months during World War II. He was ordered to surrender in April 1942 in the Philippines, and was forced with thousands of others on the infamous Bataan Death March.

He eventually was transferred to Japan and forced to work in factories, where he was finally liberated in September 1945. He spent the next two years recovering in various hospitals.

After retiring from the service, he returned to Suffolk, where he married and raised a family and retired from the city as a building inspector. He passed away in March 2009, at the age of 92.

The event’s keynote speaker, the Rev. Allen Lancaster, Matthews’ pastor at Liberty Spring Christian Church, recounted Matthews’ harrowing experiences as a prisoner of war.

As a prisoner at Camp O’Donnell, Matthews held his own brother in his arms as he died, then was forced to throw him into a pit. The prisoners were denied food and water, tortured and forced into crowded boxcars for part of the journey.

“It was so tight that if you died, you couldn’t fall down,” said Lancaster, himself a Navy veteran. “There was no water. They made them sit in the sunshine, just for sport.”

Lancaster also remembered Matthews personally, saying the type of courage he represented is sorely needed in the country now.

“If there ever was a time that America needs courage, it’s today,” he said. “Men like Norman Jack Matthews did not give up. He was not a quitter.”

Sunday’s ceremony also included a poetry reading by Carol Saul Bayma. Her poem, “On Bataan 1942,” was inspired by reading the story of Matthews’ survival in a newspaper.

Author Ben Plewes, who wrote “Suffolk Went to War,” a collection of stories about Suffolk and Nansemond County residents who served in World War II, also shared remembrances of Matthews. Matthews was one of 36 stories in Plewes’ book.

“When I was talking to Jack, his story was so amazing,” Plewes said. “Jack was involved from the first day of the war to the last day of the war.”

Friends also were invited to share memories of Matthews. Several mentioned his lifelong disdain for anything Japanese, particularly Japanese cars — until he bought a Toyota truck in his later years.

“‘Jeff, sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do,'” Councilman Jeffrey Gardy recalled Matthews saying about the truck. “‘The money was right.'”

Donna House shared how Matthews and other veterans affected her son’s life, as she took her son to eat breakfast at Bunny’s Restaurant regularly with a group of POW survivors.

“My son grew up around heroes,” House said. “Jack was a peach to get to know.” House added that Matthews kept many of his comrades alive with his Eagle Scout knowledge of first aid and survival skills.

“He actually saved lives,” she said. Matthews’ other daughter, Luellen Matthews, said she was sure her father was smiling down on the ceremony. “This would mean the world to him,” she said. “This was Daddy’s home. He so loved Suffolk.”