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AXPOW annual convention under way

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- Sixty-five years ago, Marine Sergeant Jack Warner recalled seeing the silver B-29 bombers dropping incendiary bombs on Yokohama. That's when he knew his three years as an American prisoner of war in a Japanese labor camp would soon be ending.

"When you looked up in the sky, it seemed like there were bombers everywhere flying in different formations," Warner, of Hammon, Okla., said Wednesday. "They were dropping phosphorus bombs, and there were flames and burning buildings everywhere.

"That was when I realized we'd be going home soon."

Warner and more than 200 of his comrades and their families are in town for the American Ex-Prisoners of War's annual convention at the Hilton Garden Inn.

The convention opened Monday and will run through Sunday. AXPOW boasts more than 20,000 members in some 300 chapters nationwide.

The group is open to former American POWs of all wars and their immediate families. One of the organization's main missions is securing medical services and other entitlements for former POWs.

"These conventions give us the opportunity to get back together with old buddies and new friends we've made over the years," Warner, 89, said.

Warner was serving with the 4th Marines in Shanghai when his outfit was transferred to Corregidor to assist in defense of the Philippine Islands. When the island fell in May of 1942, Warner was among a group taken from the nearly 11,000 American and Filipino prisoners marched through the streets of Manila.

"The Japs landed right at our front door," he recalled. "After the surrender, they took 44 guys from my outfit and marched us around in a victory parade."

Warner and his buddies were held at Manila's Bilibid Prison until the Japanese took the healthiest 75 Marines, 75 sailors and 150 soldiers and put them on a boat bound for the Komisch steel mill on the Japanese mainland.

"I was a mechanic on slag (railroad) cars and was forced to help construct railroad tunnels," Warner said. "Then they took about 50 of us and put us on a train to the Yokohama shipyards and made us build tankers. They made me a riveter. But we sabotaged each of the 13 ships we worked on. We heard that the longest one lasted was just four days.

"If we didn't get it, one of our subs did."

It wasn't until the middle of 1945 that Warner and his comrades knew the war was winding down.

"The B-29s used to only come in the day, then they started coming in the day and night," Warner said. "It got to a point that anytime you looked up, you could see B-29s in the sky.

"But we never knew the war was over until one day all the guards were gone. We caught a train into town and saw jeeps and turned ourselves in to a four-star general. For the first time in three years, we felt like a million bucks."

When he returned home to Oklahoma, Warner farmed for 17 years before his property was bought by the government for a planned lake.

He then spent two decades as a U.S. Wildlife Ranger before finally retiring.

"There aren't many of us around anymore," Warner said wistfully. "In another five or six years, this organization might not exist anymore.

We're hopeful our children, the next generation, will carry on our work and memory.

"I think I lost a friend for every mile between Oklahoma and Japan. That's worth remembering. That's why we are all here."