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Former POWs, family of MIA speak at McConnell

Walter Lawrence, left, and John Mock, World War II POWs, share their stories at a speaking event, Sept. 14, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The men shared their stories of internment with McConnell’s Airmen during this year’s POW/MIA week. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Erin McClellan)

Walter Lawrence, left, and John Mock, World War II POWs, share their stories at a speaking event, Sept. 14, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The men shared their stories of internment with McConnell’s Airmen during this year’s POW/MIA week. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Erin McClellan)

Sandie Anderson, left, and Martha Geiger, cousins of Navy Lt. James B. Mills, a radar intercept operator who was listed as missing in action, Sept. 21, 1966, speak during an MIA/POW event, Sept. 14, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The women attended to share the story of their cousin and how they’ve dealt with losing him. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Erin McClellan)

Sandie Anderson, left, and Martha Geiger, cousins of Navy Lt. James B. Mills, a radar intercept operator who was listed as missing in action, Sept. 21, 1966, speak during an MIA/POW event, Sept. 14, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The women attended to share the story of their cousin and how they’ve dealt with losing him. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Erin McClellan)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- “I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.”

The Code of Conduct. Every Service member learns it, because after they raise their hand and take the oath, they assume the risk of becoming a prisoner of war or making that ultimate sacrifice.

National POW/MIA Recognition Day is observed every September. Airmen take it further; instead of a day, it’s a week, filled with activities aimed at remembering those who were POWs and the 82,666 Americans still listed as missing in action.

One of the events of the week featured four guest speakers who shared their first-hand experiences as POWs and family members of someone listed as MIA.

Walter Lawrence, a World War II aerial gunner, was captured as a POW on June 19, 1944 after the B-24 Liberator he was flying in went down in Germany. Out of 10 crewmembers, he was one of only three to make it out. They were met on the ground by a local man who was involved in picking up prisoners, Lawrence said.

“We were hit right after we dropped the bombs,” said Lawrence. “There were two aircraft involved, and [they] exploded, completely destroying them. The radio operator and I landed pretty close to each other, so we headed for a man from the other aircraft who was very badly hurt. By the time we got there, the man with the gun said, ‘For you, the war is over.’ Actually, it was just beginning.”

After being captured, Lawrence was transported and interrogated before being hospitalized for nearly two months due to injuries he sustained when he bailed out of the aircraft. He was then sent to a POW camp called Stalag Luft IV in Pomerania, where he was imprisoned for nearly seven months.

When the Soviet Union started moving in on the Germans, an order was made to evacuate this camp. After leaving the camp in the middle of winter, the men were force-marched in what is known as the Black March. Lawrence himself was part of the march for 52 days. While dealing with poor treatment, health problems and hardly any food, Lawrence said the will to survive is what kept him and most of the men alive. He was freed after reaching a POW camp in Fallingbostel, Germany, April 16, 1945.

“Liberation is difficult to describe,” said Lawrence. “I put it like this: every holiday you ever had and enjoyed was wrapped up in that liberation. It’s beyond expression to know that you’re free now and in friendly hands.”

Lawrence is not alone in his experience. John Mock, another guest speaker, was also a POW in World War II. He was part of the 106th Infantry Division and was captured on Dec. 22, 1944 and spent 99 days in captivity.

When diving into a foxhole a few days before his capture, Mock was hit by a piece of shrapnel that went through his foot, but he continued on with the mission. The night he was captured, his group ran into the enemy and again found themselves under fire. Mock and another Soldier had the opportunity escape, but chose to stay with their men.

“We just dropped our rifles and ammunition belts and we went back; we weren’t going to leave them,” said Mock. “From then on, we were prisoners of war.”

Mock received medical care for his injured foot, and then traveled with his captors for several weeks before arriving at Stalag 12a in Limberg, Germany, January 18, 1945. He lived in cramped, dirty conditions with little food until March 21, 1945, when he was moved out of the camp onto a train.

The train was eventually abandoned by the guards after being attacked by several aircraft. After being released by the train crew, the prisoners found some food and spent the night under an overpass, where they were found the next day, March 28, 1945, by the 99th Infantry Division, Mock said.

Mock said they were fed and taken to a field hospital where they were cleaned up. The next day, they were evacuated to Reims, France. Mock spent almost two months there recovering from his ordeal before being well enough to go home.

“We were just skin and bones,” said Mock. “They couldn’t send us back looking like skeletons.”

POW/MIA week recognizes two groups of people, but there’s big differences between them. Navy Lt. James Mills, a radar intercept operator during the Vietnam War, couldn’t come tell his story like Lawrence and Mock, because he never came home. He was listed as MIA on Sept. 21, 1966 after the F-4 Phantom he was in went missing during a night mission. His family came to tell his story.

“I was in my week of orientation my freshman year at Oklahoma Baptist University and was called to the dean’s office and was told that my father was coming to pick me up because my cousin had been shot down in Vietnam and his plane was lost,” said Sandie Anderson, Mill’s cousin. “It was such a time of uncertainty, and it went on and on for years.”

After decades of wondering what happened to Mills, his family finally got some closure when a cockpit canopy identified as belonging to the aircraft Mills was in the night of his disappearance was found by an underwater investigation team.

“So far, no identifiable remains have been recovered, so we do not have positive evidence that he went into the water with the aircraft, but the evidence is leaning toward that conclusion,” said Anderson. “Just for the sake of closure, I have assumed that was the case, and that really did help.”

The articles of the Code of Conduct can take on a new meaning for someone who has lived through these experiences. Even after what they went through, Mock and Lawrence can be considered some of the lucky ones; they got to come home. Thousands of Americans are still listed as MIA, but people are working tirelessly to find them, bring them home and give families the closure they need. They are not forgotten.