POWs From WWII, Korea and Vietnam Share Clemson University Stage
by Ken Scar, U.S. Army Cadet Command
December 29, 2018
Three remarkable men, representing three hellish wars that have
become cornerstones of American history, shared a stage at Clemson
University on October 4, 2018.
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 that was founded in 1889
as an all-male military college and, according to its current
president Jim Clements, still prides the military leaders forged in
its Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs and their
extraordinary deeds in service to the nation above all else that it
The historic event was sponsored by Clemson’s Air Force
ROTC as their annual POW/MIA recognition ceremony.
of honor were:
Army Col. Ben Skardon, 101, who endured 1,255
days in Japanese POW camps after surviving the Bataan Death March in
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
October 4, 2018 - Retired U.S.
Army Col. Ben Skardon, 101, (right) a survivor of the Bataan
Death March and 1,255 days as a prisoner of war, Army 1st
Lt. William Funchess, 90, (left) a survivor of 1,038 days as
a POW in the Korean war, and Air Force Col. Bill Austin, 80,
(center), an F-4 Phantom pilot who was shot down on his 81st
mission ever Vietnam and survived 1,986 days as a POW, chat
during a POW/MIA recognition ceremony at Clemson University.
All three men are Clemson alums. The ceremony was held by
Clemson’s Air Force ROTC. (U.S. Army Cadet Command photo by
Archival photos of
(from left) Ben Skardon, William Funchess, and Bill Austin.
(Image created by USA Patriotism! from photo collage by Ken
Scar, U.S. Army Cadet Command)
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
POW’s 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 POW's 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.
Skardon said, are easy to learn, but difficult to accept.
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 POW’s were often forced to carry the bodies onto the
"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 POW's. 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 NVA. 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
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
eyewitness 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 (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 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
“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 POW’s 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
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
Not surprisingly, none of the three POW’s 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
“You may not think you are heroes,” he told the men.
“But you are heroes.”
America's Best | America's Greatest
Heroes | Veterans |
Answering The Call |
Our Valiant Troops
Honoring The Fallen |
Don't Weep For Me |
Remember The Fallen |
Tears For Your Fallen |