Veterans remember Christmases as POWs

Memories of Christmas in prisoner of war camps are still strong for many Lawrence World War II veterans.

“You don’t forget things like that,” said Don Binns, 87, who spent four Christmases as a prisoner of the Japanese after his capture in Guam.

“It’s like it was yesterday,” said John Stewart, 81, captured by the Germans on Dec. 19, 1944, during the early days of the Battle of the Bulge.

Martin Jones, 82, also was taken prisoner that day in that battle.

“I go a long time without thinking about my prisoner of war experience, but every Dec. 19, it comes back,” Jones said. “It was a very eventful time for a lot of young men.”

On Dec. 25, 1944, Jones was spending his sixth day with dozens of other soldiers crammed into a wooden boxcar, waiting for the train to take them to a POW camp. The Germans allowed the prisoners out to relieve themselves, then loaded them back into the cars after giving them their Christmas presents.

The presents consisted of a British Red Cross box containing food items and other supplies. One box had to be shared among six prisoners, Jones said.

“We drew straws,” Jones said of the group he was with. “Then one guy would take a chocolate bar, another guy would take a can of spam and then maybe someone would take a pack of cigarettes. I don’t remember what I got.”

After Stewart was taken prisoner, he was with a group of about 100 American soldiers forced to march toward a prison camp while keeping their hands on their heads. At one point somebody opened up on them with a machine gun, wounding Stewart in the right leg. He was one of about five or six men left lying on the ground dead or wounded.

Don Binns, a longtime Lawrence resident, was on Guam when he was captured by the Japanese. Binns spent four Christmases in a prisoner of war camp.

Several hours later two German soldiers picked him up and drove him to an aid station. He then was sent to a prison camp known as Stalag 11B, Stewart said. On Christmas Day, a couple of British paratrooper medics who were prisoners trimmed the wound on his badly injured leg, wrapped it in a material similar to crepe paper and braced it with wire, he said.

“They gave me a good shot of pentathol, and I spent most of the rest of the day sleeping,” Stewart said. “You don’t forget a Christmas like that.”

For Binns, Christmas was just like any other day in a Japanese POW camp. A Navy petty officer, Binns surrendered a few days after the Japanese invaded Guam in December 1941. He was sent to a POW camp on the Japanese island of Shikoku, where he spent most of his days loading boxcars.

John Stewart, a World War II veteran, spent Christmas 1944 as a prisoner of war in Germany. He was captured Dec. 19, 1944, and was liberated April 16, 1945.

“Christmas didn’t mean anything to us, really,” Binns said. “A lot of the guys, they lost their faith in any religion. They became agnostics or atheists. They wondered how the hell this could happen to them.”

For Jones, one of his most striking Christmas memories occurred two days before Christmas, when the train hauling his boxcar was stopped in a rail yard. On the night of Dec. 23, 1944, British bombers attacked the rail yard. Many prisoners were killed in the bombing.

“Somebody during that raid started singing ‘Silent Night, Holy Night,’ and then other men joined in,” Jones said. “I didn’t hear it, but some of the guys said they heard the German guards outside (the boxcar) joining in the singing. But there was nothing silent or holy about that night.”

Jones and Stewart remained prisoners until their prison camps were liberated by the Allies in the spring of 1945. Binns was a prisoner until the Japanese surrendered in August 1945.