‘Never forgotten’

Published 9:38 pm Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bataan survivor, others honor those lost

Keeping alive a tradition possibly a half-century old, about 50 individuals connected in some way to a group of World War II prison camp survivors almost all now deceased, gathered at Bunny’s Restaurant in Suffolk Wednesday morning.

The folks, mostly descendants of 13 prisoners of war honored at the breakfast, witnessed a moving ritual — two rings of the “Ship’s Bell” for each of the 12 now deceased.

Vietnam veteran Ed Fancher rings a bell twice for each of the now-deceased POWs who attended the monthly breakfasts at Bunny's Restaurant before their deaths.

Donna House, known as the group’s “mother hen,” said no one knows for sure when the monthly meeting ritual began — or when they moved it to Bunny’s, for that matter — but it could have been 50 years ago.

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The lone remaining member of the 13 survivors honored Wednesday was Ike Hylton, a Bataan Death March survivor now in assisted living in Charleston, House said.

Group numbers had been “pretty stable” until the last few years, she said, when the ranks have started to thin. “It seemed like they all started going, one right after the other,” she said.

She said the last death was that of Marion “Turk” Turner, a little over a year ago.

Turk’s widow, Nell Turner, said he never missed a breakfast and also attended national survivor events. “This was his greatest desire (however), to go here,” she said.

As Nell Turner told it, the Japanese took Turk prisoner after the USS Perch submarine was hit with a depth charge and scuttled on March 3, 1942.

“The captain gave orders to abandon ship, and they destroyed all the pertinent information (aboard) … (and) took to the sea,” Nell Turner said.

After the Japanese picked them up, Turk and his crewmates were taken to the island of Celebes — modern-day Sulawesi — and imprisoned for more than three years, she said.

“The conditions were horrible,” Nell Turner said. “They had to help build railroads and cut grass with their fingers. Everything was done by hand.”

North Suffolk businessman William Blair said he assumed organizing the breakfasts about 12 years ago to help keep alive both the memory of the POWs and awareness of their sacrifices.

“(It’s) to make sure that that part of history is never forgotten,” he said.

His wife, Sarah Blair, remarked that the breakfasts were vitally important to the POWs when they were alive.

“It was good for them to be able to come here and talk about their experiences in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps,” she said.

“They sat down at one end of the table, and the other people sat at the other end, and they would try to top each others’ stories.”

Father Oscar Paraiso of the Philippines delivered grace at Wednesday’s breakfast, five days before April 9’s 70th anniversary of the Bataan Death March in which prisoners from his country joined American POWs — 76,000 in all — on a deadly 80-mile forced march.

Nell Turner’s late husband had recalled to her the moment he knew the war was over.

“Natives came by and said, ‘Big boom! Big boom!’ and they knew that was the atom bomb,” she said.

Captain Erik M. Ross, commander of the USS Bataan, was Wednesday’s guest of honor.