Six former prisoners of war were among the guests Thursday, as the VA Western New York Healthcare System hosted its annual ceremony marking National POW-MIA Recognition Day.
"No group of veterans has given more than Americans captured by the enemies that held us as prisoners of war," said Michael Swartz, executive director of the System during his welcoming remarks. "No group of civilians has given more than the loved ones of the families who never came home and remain missing in action."
The former POWs honored during the ceremony were held captive either during World War II or the Vietnam War: Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Cius, Jr. (Vietnam), Army Air Corp Captain Sydney Cole (World War II), Army E-3 Thomas Delmonte (Vietnam), Army Air Force Sergeant Richard Duerr (World War II), Army Private Milton Miller (World War II) and Army Private First Class Robert Pope (World War II).
Cole, now 105 years old, and his plane went down behind German lines during World War II. One the ground, he removed and threw away his dog tags. Being Jewish, and anticipating capture by German troops, he expected he would be killed on the spot if they were to discover his creed.
Instead, he endured nearly two years of captivity.
"When I was released, I weighed 80 pounds," Cole said. "When I moved, I could hear the clicking of my bones in my body. It was so thin."
Upon gaining his freedom he recovered in a U.S. hospital and, once his health was restored, he helped liberate fellow Jews from the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Karen Zale, a Franklinville resident, wrote a book about her late father's experience, The Will to Survive. Her father, John Zale, was captured during the Pacific Theater of World War II and survived the infamous Bataan Death March, during which tens of thousands of American and Filipino prisoners were walked an estimated 70 miles, with minimal food and water, and during which many were subject to physical abuses.
Zale recalled her father showing signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but during a time when it was known as "combat fatigue." She didn't know the full extent of the atrocities he survived until many years later. The purpose of her book, she explained, is to help raise awareness of other POWs or MIAs and to support others still suffering from PTSD. She stated that proceeds from book sales are donated to the organization WNY Heroes.
"Because of them, we enjoy so many precious freedoms. This world is a better place because of you," she said. "That is why we hold this Recognition Day. There shouldn't be just one day for recognition, it should be every day."