By 2nd Lt. Darren Domingo
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
Schriever Air Force Base concluded its remembrance week for prisoners of war and those still missing in action with a closing ceremony held Sept. 17 in the headquarters building atrium.
Col. Anthony Mastalir, 50th Space Wing vice commander, highlighted the need for such events.
“We need to take time to remember the nearly 600,000 American men and women held at some point as POWs or MIAs,” said Mastalir. “But more than a number, every person who was captured or killed in action has a story, and it’s incumbent upon us to go back and remember their stories and share those stories. Because they’re stories about heroes, they’re stories about folks who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Chief Master Sgt. Mark Perkins, 4th Space Operations Squadron superintendent, gave an account of his late great-uncle, Tech. Sgt. James Mann, a B-17 Flying Fortress top-turret gunner. Mann was flying missions out of Foggia, Italy, when he was captured as a prisoner of war in a Nazi prison camp.
On May 18, 1944, the day of Mann’s 21st flying mission, his plane “One Touch of Venus” was shot down by German fighter planes over Romania. His capture was a result of miscommunication when he did not receive a message to return to base. Hundreds of other B-17s and B-24s received the transmission, leaving Mann’s aircraft without fighter support.
Still, “One Touch of Venus” was able to drop its bombs, under heavy anti-aircraft fire, before being shot down.
Mann spent nearly four months in a prison compound near the railroad yards of Bucharest, Romania. The prisoners’ days consisted of interrogations, beatings and poor food provisions.
Mann was beaten over a three-week period for refusal to answer one question: “What’s your favorite color?”
Mann refused to answer because he believed if the interrogators found out it was that hard to gain information, they would recognize it much more difficult to get critical information from him.
“If you fight tooth and nail for the easiest questions, it’s not worth their effort to fight for the tougher questions,” Perkins explained.
Nearer to the end of Mann’s captivity, Soviet forces steadily advanced closer to the prison, which eventually ended Nazi occupation of Romania.
Mann found an escape opportunity one night with several other prisoners after Nazi troops abandoned the camp. The prisoners evacuated the area due to the Nazi’s heavy strafing of the city, hospital, prison compound and most other standing structures nearby.
Mann left the Army Air Forces with several medals on his chest including the Purple Heart and three Bronze Stars. He passed away July 13, 2010, at the age of 87.
“It was an honor to remember him and share his story,” said Perkins. “He didn’t share his story with many people.”
Perkins explained his uncle was a quiet man who did not want to boast of his stories surviving and escaping the prison.
“It was his duty to serve his nation when called upon and he just did his best,” said Perkins. “It wasn’t anything he bragged about.”
Perkins felt today’s Airmen wouldn’t truly understand the weightiness of the code of conduct without hearing the stories of past POWs and MIAs.
“Hearing that story, hearing that somebody was shot down, that gives us our heritage,” said Perkins. “You don’t know where you’re going unless you look back and see where you’ve been.”
In addition to the closing ceremony, a 24-hour vigil run was held in honor of POWs and MIAs. Schriever personnel from units around base ran all day and through the night carrying the POW/MIA flag at the forefront.
“It was an honor and a good opportunity to participate in [the run] and reflect in remembrance of POWs and MIAs,” said Staff Sgt. Zollie McNeil, Equal Opportunity specialist.
The initial planning of the week of events was coordinated by members of the Airman Leadership Council. Earlier in the week, an opening ceremony was held where retired U.S. Army Master Sgt. Ed Beck, a former WWII prisoner of war shared his memories of surviving and escaping a Nazi concentration camp.
Senior Airman Krisella Mariano, 3rd Space Operations Squadron, shared her favorite experience in helping organize the events.
“My favorite part was the opening ceremony because we got to meet Master Sgt. Ed Beck,” she said. “It’s just insane how he went through all of that at 19-years-old, taken as a prisoner of war. It was just an honor to meet him.”
Senior Airman Bianca Alonzo, 50th Comptroller Squadron, spoke on the importance of remembering.
“If we [forget to] take the time out of our day to at least give prisoners of war and those missing in action a moment of silence, then we’ll forget who we are and what we stand/work for,” said Alonzo.