When Lawrence resident Don Binns sees pictures of American soldiers taken captive as prisoners of war in Iraq, he cringes. He can't help but see himself in their faces.
"I sympathize with them because I went through the same experience, and it was pretty gruesome ... pretty gruesome," Binns said.
Binns served eight years, from 1975 to 1983, on the Lawrence City Commission. He spent 23 years teaching at Lawrence High School. But before all of that, he survived nearly four years during World War II living inside Zentsuji, a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
"I remember it very well," Binns said. "You don't forget a lot of that stuff, you know."
In fact, Binns speaks of his time as a POW more like it was just yesterday, rather than 60 years ago. Binns was a chief petty officer with the Navy, married just two weeks, when he was sent to the island of Guam.
"There were 150 Marines and 100 soldiers on the island at the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor," Binns said. "They landed 10,000 Japanese marines on Guam, and you can imagine the battle was short and sweet."
Binns didn't give up immediately. Even after the island was surrendered to the Japanese, Binns and several fellow servicemen hid in a cave for close to 10 days.
"The Japanese put out an order. They knew who hadn't surrendered because they had all of our records and everything," Binns said. "If we hadn't surrendered by the next day, they were gonna behead us when they caught us."
A grim captivity
Binns said he would never forget the Japanese soldier who took him captive after jamming a bayonet into his stomach.
"He wanted us to undress," he said. "They stripped us off naked and marched us through the city."
Binns and the other U.S. Marines and sailors were held in a Catholic church on the island for 30 or 40 days. During that time, Binns lost 50 pounds, being fed twice a day.
The POWs then were loaded on an oil tanker and taken to Japan. Binns served out the remainder of World War II, nearly four years, in the Zentsuji POW camp.
"It had an 8-foot wooden fence all around it," Binns recalls. "It had actually been a stable for the Japanese horse patrol."
The living conditions were atrocious, he said, with 28 men in a room infested with rats. The POWs slept on the floor on straw mats. There were no showers and one outhouse.
And then there were the guards.
"They were real vicious," Binns recalled. "They'd smack you around for any reason. They beat the hell out of us."
Many of the POWs did not survive. The worst part was that Binns and his fellow POWs had to dispose of the bodies of those who didn't survive.
"We had to carry them down and cremate them," Binns said. "Out of 160 guys in our camp, we brought back 38 bottles of ashes."
Binns said he considered himself fortunate to have survived the experience, let alone having lived to be 85. He said the feeling of being liberated at war's end was indescribable.
"We freed ourselves. I was the second person over the fence."
Empathy for families
Now, as he watches the coverage of the war in Iraq, Binns can't help but wonder what the coalition soldiers taken captive are going through.
"That's the problem right now," he said. "How hard is it going to be for them, you know."
He feels for the families of the captured soldiers.
"For the families that's pretty bad," Binns said. "For the first couple of years my wife didn't even know if I was alive or dead. She had no idea."
The good that came of his horrible experience was the friendships that have lasted since his release from captivity in 1945. Every year, Binns and about a dozen or so ex-POWs get together for a reunion. In May, he and his fellow captives will gather in Kansas City, Mo.
"We're all good friends now," Binns said. "There's a sense of brotherhood there now that just almost overwhelms me."