Originally Published: September 20, 2011 9:55 p.m.
Robin Derrickson held a scratched metal bracelet her husband has worn for decades to honor a soldier missing in action as she attended the POW/MIA Recognition Day Ceremony at the Prescott Resort Monday.
Derrickson said her husband Richard, who was a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam, couldn't attend the ceremony, so she brought the bracelet, which bears the name of Maj. Harry Ravenna, of the U.S. Army's 138th Aviation Company, who has been missing in action in Vietnam since Nov. 15, 1966.
"He (hopes those missing in action) were not prisoners of war for such a long time," Derrickson said.
Five prisoners of war attended the ceremony put on by local youths with direction from the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System.
"As prisoners of war, we appreciate so much the effort put into getting us back," said Walter Eckes, a Marine Corps radio operator in Vietnam who was captured May 10, 1966, escaped and made his way back to a Marine base in An Hoa on June 20. "We need to keep it our top priority to get all our prisoners, killed and missing, back."
Alex Knickerbocker, a Prescott High School student, kicked off the ceremony by welcoming the 90 people who attended. Central Arizona Young Marines presented the colors, and Aaron Schnoebelen, an eighth-grade student at Granite Mountain Middle School, gave the invocation.
"Prisoners of war served with dignity and honor under the worst conditions, yet even in their darkest hours they showed remarkable dignity, honor and courage and unwavering devotion to family and country," said Jim Belmont, associate director of the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System. "We pay special tribute to the thousands of military families who lost loved ones and those whose whereabouts remain unknown."
The Prescott High School Show Choir, led by director Matt Kiesling, sang the "Star-Spangled Banner," a selection of patriotic music and the anthems of the armed forces.
"I cannot imagine what it is like to not know what has happened to someone you love. To have them just missing. It must leave a large hole in your life," said Angel Vandegrift, a student at Tri-City College Prep High School, who spoke at the ceremony. "I also cannot imagine what it is like to be a prisoner of war or what it would take to keep up your courage under such circumstances."
Wayne Daniels, who flew B-17s as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, said after he and his crew of nine were shot down, he was held at Stalag Luft I as a prisoner of war for about six months. Daniels said he and four of his crew were captured, but he did not know at that time whether his other five crewmates died when the plane went down, if they were captured, or what happened to them.
"It is difficult to grasp the sheer number of Americans listed as missing in action. More than 78,000 in World War II; 8,140 in Korea; hundreds during the Cold War and nearly 2,000 in Vietnam," Belmont said. "Americans will not rest until each and every hero is accounted for."
Robert O'Neill served in the U.S. Army's infantry during World War II near the Siegfried Line, where he and his men tried to cut off German supply lines.
"It didn't work. We were cut off instead, and they captured us," said O'Neill, who ended up being held at OFLAG 64 in Poland.
In January of 1945, as Russian troops approached the camp, all prisoners able to walk were marched out toward Germany, O'Neill said. Along the march he saw a barn filled with hay. "I told my bunkmate, 'I'm getting out of here right now,'" O'Neill said.
O'Neill said his bunkmate agreed with the plan. They buried themselves in the hay, waited until the group left, and then walked in the opposite direction.
"Polish farm people fed and housed us," said O'Neill, and the duo made their way to bombed-out Warsaw. "Our goal was to get to Moscow to the embassy."
They rode trains hidden in boxcars, but the Russian police found them and turned them away saying they needed visas, O'Neill said. Instead, they went to Odessa on the Black Sea, where they boarded a British frigate to Port Said in Egypt. Later they went to an Italian port, and in April 1945 boarded a ship that took them back to Boston.
Morgan White, a Tri-City College Prep High School student who spoke at the ceremony, thanked the prisoners of war.
"Every one of you still chose to fulfill your duties," White said. "I want you to know that your actions and devotion have set a great example for the youth of this nation."
White said her grandfather, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, once told her, "Although several days are set aside out of the year to remember our past, present, and deceased military personnel, people are always guided to honor peacemakers, not warriors."
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