There is no easy time to be a prisoner of war.
The United States military’s code of conduct implores captured service members to continue to resist by any means possible. This often means reprisals from one’s captors. Therefore, surviving one stint in a POW camp can be excruciating.
To do it twice is unimaginable — except these three American servicemen did it.
1. Wendall A. Phillips
Phillips was assigned to the Air Transport Command as a radio operator on C-47 aircraft flying from bases in England.
While in Europe Phillips survived five separate crashes. During the last one, in late 1944, his aircraft was shot down. Though he walked away from the crash, he was unable to evade the Germans and was captured.
He and his fellow crewmembers were taken to a German POW camp in Belgium.
Phillips had no intention of sticking around though. After just 33 days Phillips and two other POW’s made a break for it.
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Phillips simply snuck away while no guards were around. Finding a hole in the electric fence around the camp, Phillips and the other two men made good their escape and quickly found a place to hide.
Phillips travelled for three days before he linked up with the French Underground. The resistance fighters helped Phillips make it back to American lines.
After returning to American forces, Phillips was reassigned to the China-India-Burma Theater flying “the Hump” to bring supplies to forces fighting the Japanese.
Once again, Phillips’ airplane crashed and he was captured by the enemy.
According to an article in The Morning Call, Phillips endured torture at the hands of the Japanese — they even forcibly removed his fingernails trying to get information out of him.
Phillips would not escape this time but he would survive his ordeal as a POW; he was released with the Japanese surrender in 1945.
2. Felix J. McCool
When Gen. Wainwright conveyed the American surrender in the Philippines to President Roosevelt, he said, “there is a limit to human endurance, and that limit has long since been passed.” But Gen. Wainwright was certainly not speaking for one Marine sergeant, Felix J. McCool.
McCool was still recovering from wounds he had received earlier in resisting the Japanese when he, the 4th Marine Regiment, and the rest of the defenders of Corregidor were rounded up and shipped off to internment.
Just getting there was bad enough as the captives were crammed into cattle cars so tightly that when men passed out or died they could not even fall down.
But for McCool, being a Marine meant that he was not out of the fight. He did everything in his power to resist his Japanese captors.
While working as forced labor on an airfield McCool and his fellow prisoners created a tiger trap on the runway — they later watched as a Japanese airplane crashed and burned due to their handiwork.
McCool also managed to smuggle in medical supplies to help the sick and wounded.
He did this despite the constant threat of beatings and even summary execution. He carried on despite the horrendous conditions in the camp.
But there was worse to come.
McCool next endured a brutal voyage to Japan aboard a Japanese prisoner transport vessel, known as a “hell ship.” McCool survived the hellacious conditions only to be put to work in an underground coal mine. There he continued his resistance by sabotaging the work and keeping the faith with his fellow prisoners.
After thirteen months in the coal mine, McCool was freed by the ending of the war in the Pacific.
He returned to the United States and decided to stay in the Marine Corps. Then in 1950, now a Chief Warrant Officer, he found himself fighting the North Koreans.
McCool became part of the fateful Task Force Drysdale, an ad hoc, mixed-nationality unit that was attempting to fight its way toward the beleaguered Marines fighting at the Chosin Reservoir. When the task force was ambushed and separated along the roadway to Hagaru-ri, McCool was once again taken prisoner.
McCool and his fellow captives were marched far north through brutal cold with no rations. Once in their internment camp, the conditions hardly improved. Besides the brutal treatment, the men were also subjected to communist indoctrination and propaganda.
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McCool’s resistance earned him the ire of his captors and they threw him in the Hole — a barely three foot square hole in the ground. But he endured.
McCool was repatriated with many other Americans during Operation Big Switch after the end of hostilities.
According to his award citations, McCool spent over six years as a prisoner of war between his two internments.
He later wrote a book about his experiences and the poetry that he wrote to keep himself going during those terrible times.
3. Richard Keirn
Richard Keirn was a young flight officer on a B-17 when he arrived in England in 1944. On Sept. 11, 1944, he took to the skies in his first mission to bomb Nazi Germany. It would also be his last.
Keirn’s B-17 was shot down that day and he became a POW for the remainder of the war. Released in May 1945 after the defeat of Germany, Keirn returned to the United States and stayed in the military. He became a part of the newly formed U.S. Air Force.
In 1965, Keirn embarked for Vietnam, flying F-4 Phantom II’s.
Then on July 24, 1965, North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles engaged and shot down an American aircraft for the first time. That aircraft was piloted by Capt. Richard Keirn.
Keirn ejected from his stricken aircraft and would spend nearly eight years as a POW in North Vietnam.
Keirn, like many of his fellow POWs, made every effort to resist the North Vietnamese. For his actions as a POW, he was awarded a Silver Star and a Legion of Merit.
Keirn was released from captivity with many other downed airmen as part of Operation Homecoming in 1973.