By Jennifer HartwigJanuary 23, 2012
HUNTER ARMY AIRFIELD, Ga. (Jan. 23, 2012) -- In November 1941, 1,209 men with the 27th Bombardment Group left what is now Hunter Army Airfield to beef up Gen. Douglas MacArthur's defense of the Philippines.
A year later, only 20 returned to the U.S. Of the remaining, the rest were killed or became prisoners of war. Only 30 percent of the unit ever returned home.
Larry Stephenson, the nephew of one of the pilots who did not return to his family, dedicated eight years of his life to researching and writing about the doomed unit. His book, "Operation PLUM: The ill-fated 27th Bombardment Group and the fight for the Western Pacific," was published in 2008.
Stephenson said that "Operation: PLUM" was the code name for the U.S. Army in the Philippines in the buildup to World War II.
"That sudden buildup when they started to pour troops into the Philippines, that was called Operation: PLUM," he explained. "When my uncle and the rest of the unit left Savannah, the tags on their luggage, etc., said 'Operation: PLUM.'"
The author traveled to Hunter Army Airfield, Jan. 12, to see the last place his uncle, Capt. Glenwood Stevenson, was stationed. During his visit, he toured the installation and spoke to about 30 military and community leaders.
"This place has a special meaning to me," he said of Hunter. "It has a special significance, because this is where he left for the war from."
Stephenson rehashed the story of the 27th Bombardment Group, who arrived in the Philippines on Thanksgiving Day and was told their aircraft, which they took apart for the trek, was just days behind them. In fact, their aircraft had not yet left the U.S., and was diverted to Australia after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.
Twenty-seven airmen from the 27th were flown from the Philippines to Australia to help expedite the process of getting the planes put back together and flown back to their unit.
An aviation unit with no aircraft, the remaining Soldiers of the 27th Bombardment Group were completely unprepared when surprise attacked by the Japanese in the Philippines just two weeks after Thanksgiving and suffered a crushing blow. Many were killed and others were taken as prisoners of war.
Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Tom Davis was one of the men of the 27th captured by the Japanese in the Philippines and was part of the infamous Bataan Death March.
In April 1942, the Japanese forced about 76,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war to march 60 miles to a POW camp. The march is infamous for wide-ranging physical abuse and murder. Davis is one of the few Americans who returned.
"When you've lost your freedom, you've lost everything -- and we lost our freedom," Davis said.
But Davis said not returning home to his wife, Ruth, in Savannah was never an option. At age 17, the two married just a week before he left Savannah and she waited four years for his return.
"My wife's grandfather worked for the news service in Savannah and he kept telling her I wouldn't come back, but she said, 'I know he will. I know he will,'" Davis recalled. "(Not coming home) never crossed my mind. It never crossed my mind."
Davis, along with Tom Freeman, a World War II Navy veteran, Stephenson, and Hunter Garrison Command Sergeant Major Stanley Hood laid a wreath of remembrance in front of the memorial to the 27th Bombardment Group in front of the Hunter Chapel.
"I was thinking about all my friends who died," Davis said of laying the wreath.
Stephenson said meeting Davis, an airman not only from the 27th Bombardment Group but from the 16th Squadron, which his uncle commanded, made the visit complete.
"It was very emotional," Stephenson said. "I spent all this time working on this [book], and here is a guy from my uncle's very unit, in the place where my uncle last served in the U.S., seventy years later."