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NEWS | May 27, 2010

Former POW shares story with trainees

By Mike Joseph 502nd Air Base Wing OL-A Public Affairs

He appeared nervous, perhaps even a little uncomfortable. It wasn't about speaking to a group of trainees; it was the possibility of breaking down while recalling his time as a Japanese prisoner of war.

But Joe Alexander, a retired Air Force technical sergeant, made it through a recent address just fine, stopping before becoming too emotional.

"I told the Colonel (Lt. Col. Matthew Whiat, 323rd Training Squadron commander) this is my first time to speak to a group," said Mr. Alexander. "I always break down (when I talk about it) but I guess since they were trainees, that's why I didn't when I normally do."

Mr. Alexander, the youngest POW in World War II, gave a brief synopsis of his WWII experience and answered questions by a flight of soon-to-be basic military training graduates before starting to become emotional.

"Okay, that's it," he said after 10 minutes, explaining why the American flag and patriotism is so important to all ex-POWs, particularly on observances like Memorial Day.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would," said Mr. Alexander. "The flag means a lot to me. (The flag burning) a few years back, it tore (ex-POWs) up.

"The flag means more to us than it does to ya'll. We know what we went through for that flag, which ya'll haven't. That's why when the flag goes by, it brings tears to my eyes and why it means so much to all POWs."

Captured by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1942 at age 15, Mr. Alexander survived the brutality and barbarity of the Bataan Death March and POW camps in Japan.

He spent 3.5 years as a POW, working daylight to dark in steel mills, coal mines or unloading ships. Meals were chicken feed and barley.

"I know you've seen films on Midway and the Bataan Death March where they actually beheaded Americans," the 83-year-old, dressed in his Air Force blues, told the trainees. "That was all true. If the Filipinos tried to give us water or anything and the Japanese saw them, right there they'd behead, shoot or bayonet them."

He said believing the camps would be liberated one day and never giving up kept him alive. The ones who did give up eventually perished.

"I know (some) people don't believe what we tell, that's why we don't talk about it much," said Mr. Alexander, who never discussed it with family, only fellow POWs.

"But the beatings we took ... the Japanese were very, very cruel to us. The guards that were so mean, you can never forgive them.

"But to this day I have Japanese friends and I've been to Japan. The Japanese people had nothing to do with it."

After being liberated in 1945, Mr. Alexander spent two years at Brooke Army Medical Center.

He completed 23 years in the Air Force and another 17 in civil service at Kelly Air Base before retiring in 1983.

He worked with Airman's magazine on an in depth story for six months in 1981. The trauma of reliving those atrocities put him under a doctor's care for a year.

His later involvement with the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor helped ease the pain.

"I would talk to someone and they'll think it wasn't that bad," Mr. Alexander said after meeting with the trainees.

"But I'd talk to other POWs (at ADBC conventions) and we'd get it out of our system. In fact, we'd laugh when we'd get together. It helped.

"You have to go through it to really understand," he said. "I could have gone somewhere else and been killed, so everything worked out. And if I had to do it all over again, I would."

With that, Mr. Alexander said it was time to stop. It was obvious the memories of nearly 70 years ago were getting uncomfortable again.

(Mr. Alexander's biography can be found at