CLEMSON, S.C. -- Three remarkable men, representing three hellish wars that have become cornerstones of American history, shared a stage at Clemson University Thursday, Oct. 4. It was the first, and likely will be the only time living prisoners of war from WWII, Korea and Vietnam appeared together at the university -- which was founded in 1889 as an all-male military college and, according to its current president Jim Clements, still prides itself on the military leaders forged in its Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs and their extraordinary deeds in service to the nation.
The historic event was sponsored by Clemson's Air Force ROTC as their annual POW/MIA recognition ceremony.
The guests of honor were:
-Army Col. Ben Skardon, 101, who endured 1,255 days in Japanese POW camps after surviving the Bataan Death March in WWII.
-Army 1st Lt. Bill Funchess, 90, who lived through 1,038 days as a prisoner of the North Korean army after his entire platoon was killed or captured.
-Air Force Col. Bill Austin, 80, who was an F-4 Phantom pilot shot down on his 81st combat flight over North Vietnam and survived 1,986 days of internment by the North Vietnamese army.
The three men are all Clemson alums (in 1938, 1948 and 1959, respectively) who all returned to Clemson to work as either staff or faculty after the wars. Amazingly, all three men also still live within 15 minutes of the Clemson campus. Those unique factors might make Clemson the only place in America today where three living POWs from those three different wars could share a stage, according to event organizers.
The event drew a large crowd, including 250 current Clemson ROTC cadets, that sat in a hushed awe interrupted sporadically by laughs, gasps and a few sobs as the three POWs told their stories.
Skardon is perhaps the most famous of the three after the CBS news show "60 Minutes" produced a feature story about him that they aired twice - once for their sister program, "60 Minutes Sports", on Showtime in 2016 and again on their primary CBS Sunday night show for Memorial Day 2017. He spoke eloquently and at times humorously about the horrors of the Bataan Death March and subsequent internment, and of the two fellow Clemson alums -- Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan -- who saved his life in the prison camps only to perish themselves before the end of the war.
Leitner and Morgan cared for Skardon when he became deathly ill with malaria and beriberi, bathing his face to kill the fevers and covering him with blankets and straw to battle the chills. They often spoon-fed him, and would spend hours rubbing his swollen feet.
Throughout the first months of his ordeal, Skardon was able to hide his Clemson class ring after being captured. When his health eventually declined to the point of imminent death, Morgan took the ring and traded it to some of their guards for a tin of canned ham and a small chicken. Morgan and Leitner made a rudimentary soup with the chicken and hand-fed it to Skardon, which Skardon says most surely saved his life.
"I owe my life to Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan," he said.
Skardon is the only survivor of the Bataan Death March who walks in the annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, every year. He walks 8.5 miles to honor Leitner, Morgan and all his brothers-in-arms who didn't make it home. He has done it for the last 12 years in a row. At 101, he is training to go back for the next one in March 2019. It's a pilgrimage he says is a sacred duty because he still doesn't know why he lived, and his friends didn't.
Some lessons, Skardon said, are easy to learn, but difficult to accept. "I learned how easy it is to die when you lose the will to live."
Funchess took the podium next and recounted how all 50 men in his platoon were either killed or captured after being ambushed by an overwhelming number of Chinese soldiers. He was shot through the foot by machine gun fire and kept fighting until he was backed against a cliff, surrounded, and finally forced to lay down his weapon. His gripping testimony of how his captors stacked dead American bodies on a hillside by the hundreds and covered them with snow had the 500-plus audience members riveted. He said he and the other surviving POWs were often forced to carry the bodies onto the hillside themselves.
"We could not sing a hymn or say any words," he said of the burials. "We could not read any scripture. There had to be total silence."
During his captivity, Funchess kept a pocket Bible he'd hidden and would read it out loud for his fellow POWs. He recalled the Bible being confiscated two or three times, but each time, he was able to sneak it back into his possession. As he recounted the story, he surprised the audience by holding up that Bible, eliciting a loud round of applause.
"As far as I know, this is the only Bible brought out of a POW camp by a POW," he said.
Austin, the young buck of the group at 80, said he's often asked how he survived relentless beatings and torture for more than five years at the hands of the North Vietnamese army. He said he's thought about that a lot over the years.
"Faith in God, faith in my country, and faith in my fellow man," he said. "I knew our country would not forget about us, and I knew the war would not go on forever."
Equal to that faith, Austin said, he attributes one key personality trait to his survival: confidence.
He said he had confidence that God had a purpose for him, that U.S. forces would rescue him, and that his family would be able to endure until he could return to them.
Most importantly, he had confidence in himself.
"That was paramount. My parents raised me to believe that I could do anything I set my mind to, and that's pretty much turned out to be true. I knew that if anyone could survive, I could."
In his 80 combat flights before being shot down over North Vietnam, Austin earned a Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 10 Air Medals. He consistently lied to and misled his captors during countless interrogations, but never gave them the information they wanted. He received a second Silver Star for consistently resisting the enemy's demands through the entirety of his imprisonment by calling upon his deepest inner strengths.
Skardon also owns two Silver Stars, as well as two Bronze Stars for valor in combat -- earned in just four months as he led his troops through some of the fiercest fighting of WWII. Funchess did not receive any medals for valor, because there were no eyewitnesses left after his entire platoon of 50 men was either killed or captured in a single day, holding off an ambush by an overwhelming Chinese force so that the rest of his battalion -- some 700 men -- could slip away without a single casualty and fight again.
Air Force Col. Thomas Johnson, commander of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, or JPRA, the Department of Defense's office of primary responsibility for DOD-wide personnel recovery matters, flew from Fort Belvoir, Virginia to attend the event. He told the three guests of honor that their service and sacrifice is as relevant today as it has ever been.
Johnson, who also happens to be a Clemson graduate and who was commissioned by Austin on that very stage "some 30 years ago," told the men their courage and conduct under the most challenging circumstances imaginable is still being used as inspiration and as an example for service members across the entire U.S. military.
"We cannot thank you enough for your service," Johnson told the men. "JPRA is a 400-person strong unit devoted to learning the lessons that you provided us and passing that knowledge to the next generation of service members. We could not do that without your continued service, and your continued graciousness in providing that background."
Air Force Col. Keith Balts, commander of Clemson's Air Force ROTC, thanked the three POWs for their extreme measure of devotion.
"To say your experiences are inspirational only scratches the surface of the impact you have made and will make on those who hear your stories," said Balts. "To paraphrase a famous quote, often attributed to George Washington: 'The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve [is] directly proportional to how veterans of earlier wars [are]...treated and appreciated by our nation.' We have 250 Air Force and Army cadets here today who are already willing to serve, and I trust they will all gain a deeper meaning of that service after today's ceremony."
Johnson directed the majority of his comments to the Army and Air Force ROTC cadets in the audience.
"These men paid everything but the ultimate sacrifice fighting for the freedoms we take advantage of sometimes," he told the cadets. "I will tell you that if you ask them, they probably think [this ceremony] is not about them -- it's about you. It's up to us in uniform to defend those freedoms and to make sure our next generations have the freedoms that these gentlemen fought to provide us."
Not surprisingly, none of the three POWs likes the word "hero" attributed to them.
"Like Col. Skardon said: we are survivors, not heroes," said Austin. "Sometimes it was rough. 'I've got to survive for another five minutes or so. Can I hang on? Can I make it through the next hour? What's the rest of the day going to have for me? Can I make it through?' That was my job -- to survive. I'm not a hero, I'm just a survivor. "
But Johnson begged to differ.
"You may not think you are heroes," he told the men. "But you are heroes."