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National Former POW Recognition Day

Ret. Lt. Col. Ernest R. Jenkins was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany, for 17 months during World War II. Photo by Stacy Pearsall

Ret. Lt. Col. Ernest R. Jenkins was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft 1 for 17 months in Barth, Germany during World War II. Photo by Stacy Pearsall

By Lanelle Strawder, Public Affairs Specialist
Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Saturday, April 9, is National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day. The day is set aside in appreciation of the solemn duty exhibited by former prisoners of war who gave up their own freedom in defense of the freedom of this Nation.

Every day Former POW Ernest R. Jenkins is still thankful to be on American soil. At 97 years old, the Charleston native can remember enlisting into the military at the spry age of 24. He never realized his decision to serve would lead to being imprisoned for nearly 18 months a world away from home.

Following several months of training with the U.S. Army Air Corps, Jenkins was assigned to the 99th Bombardment Group, 347th Bomb Squadron. When he arrived in Oudna, North Africa in 1943, his job as a bombardier was targeting aerial bombs from B-17s to destroy equipment and seaports. Known to his comrades as "Jenks", Jenkins was accomplished an accomplished bombardier, flying 21 successful missions. However, on January 27, 1944, his plane was shot down by a German fighter aircraft while en route to Salon de Provence in southern France. Jenkins was among the few survivors of the crash.

Along with the plane's co-pilot, Robert Johnson, Jenkins evadedf capture for more than 30 days after his plane fwent down. He found sanctuary in the farmhouse of a young couple he'd later learn were members of the French Resistance--an underground network of French nationals opposed to the German occupation of France. His time with the couple was safe and comfortable, but the two soldiers were determined to make it back to the United States.

Dressed in plain clothes, they set out for the train station in Perpignan, France, with hopes to make it to Spain where they knew it'd be easier to find a way to get home. However, the two were captured by the German military at a checkpoint while trying to cross the Spanish border. They immediately separated the comrades. Jenkins was sent to the prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany, where he was held with other Allied soldiers until war's end. Johnson was sent to a different POW camp, and to Jenkins' knowledge, never made it home.

Jenkins doesn't talk much about the long days he spent in Stalag Luft missing his family, craving warm meals and lifstening to other POWs being subjected to hours of questioning. Instead, these days, when Jenkins recountsf the time he spent there, he chooses to remember the fun they had in spite of their circumstances. He says he and the other POWs would play sports for hours on end to pass the time.

"We played until the balls were worn out and the bats broke in half. They couldn't keep the equipment coming fast enough," Jenkins recalls, referring to the donated equipment that would sometimes arrive from the American Red Cross.

During his time in the camp, Jenkins says he never doubted that he'd one day come home.

"I knew I'd get back," Jenkins chuckled. "I just thought it'd be because I was going to escape."

Jenkins' daughter, Sarah Johnson, says her father made no less than four attempts to escape the camp, digging tunnels to try to bypass the prison's walls.

In April 1946, Russian forces liberated the Stalag Luft 1, and put the soldiers on a train back to France. From there, freed American troops returned home aboard the Empress of Scotland. Jenkins smiled as he remembered returning home.

"It was great. Just wonderful," he said. "I was so happy to be back home. My wife was there, my mother, and all my family. They met me at the railroad station. I was just so happy to see them."

Jenkins went on to spend another 28 years in the Air Force reserves. He did not deploy out of country again during the remainder of his service.

Every third Friday in September for National POW/MIA Recognition Day, we take time to remember Servicemembers who became prisoners of war and those who remain missing in action. But on a quiet day in April, we remember all those who made it back home. 

Thousands of American servicemen and women have experienced unimaginable trials and profound cruelty as prisoners of war.  Many suffered mental and physical torture.  Often they faced starvation, isolation, and the uncertainty of indefinite captivity.  But even in their darkest moments, these heroes displayed courage and determination.  They met immense anguish with an indomitable resolve and stood fast for the principles in which they believed.  Their sacrifice represents what is best about our people and challenges us to live up to our Nation's highest ideals.

- From a Proclamation by Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, April 8, 2015

As 2016 National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day approaches this Saturday--just a week shy of his 98th birthday--Lt. Col. Jenkins surmised his military experience like this:

"If I had it to do it all over again, I'd do everything just the same. I'm extremely proud that I had the chance to serve my country."

Ret. Lt. Col. Ernest R. Jenkins was featured as part of photographer Stacy Pearsall's Veterans Portrait Project in 2014. View more images of the Air Force Veteran on her website.


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