Arrow-right Camera

Washington Voices

Returned POW was eager to wed

Thu., April 29, 2010

Mike Bibin, left, and Lou Bibin are pictured at their home in Coeur d’Alene on  April 6. They have traveled extensively during their 62 years of marriage. (Kathy Plonka)
Mike Bibin, left, and Lou Bibin are pictured at their home in Coeur d’Alene on April 6. They have traveled extensively during their 62 years of marriage. (Kathy Plonka)

Mike Bibin was 31 when he met his future wife in Rapid City, S.D., but he felt like he’d already lived a lifetime. In many ways he had.

He and his 19-year-old brother joined the Army Air Corps as soon as Bibin graduated from high school in Detroit. It was 1934, and Bibin had a dream. “I wanted to be a flyer,” he recalled. “But I never made being a pilot; instead, we were both bombardiers.”

In the fall of 1941 their squadron was sent to the Philippines. “We were there when the war started,” he said. On Dec. 8, 1941 Bibin had the dubious distinction of becoming first American airman shot over the Philippines. As he and the crew of their B-17 flew back to Clark Field, they were attacked by a Japanese Zero.

Bibin was manning the 50-caliber waist guns in the aft of the plane. “Next thing I knew, I was sitting on the other side of the plane all shot up,” he said. His collarbone had been shattered, the main nerve in his left arm was severed, and bullet fragments were lodged in his head and lung.

He was the only one wounded, but the plane had been damaged, so the pilot decided to return to Mindanao. Eventually, Bibin was transferred to a hospital and underwent surgery. During his recuperation the Japanese invaded the Philippines and Bibin was taken captive at the hospital. Meanwhile, his brother Frank survived the grueling Bataan death march, only to succumb to malaria in May 1942.

Bibin endured almost four years as prisoner of war. “I was taken to Japan in one of the hell ships,” he recalled, referring to the unmarked Japanese freighters that were used to transport POWs during World War II. “There were 500 of us in the hold. I spent three months like this,” he said, tucking his knees into his chest and wrapping his arms around them. “We had to take turns lying down.”

When the Japanese surrendered and Bibin was finally released, he weighed 80 pounds. Two years later, newly stationed in South Dakota, he met Lou. They met because Bibin needed cash to get to a girl who was waiting for him in Casper, Wyo. “I came to borrow money from a friend to take a girl on a date,” he said. “Lou was having coffee with my friend’s wife.”

He asked if he could join them, the girl in Casper forgotten. Bibin had seen the world. He wanted to marry and settle down, and when he saw Lou, he knew she was the one for him.

Lou, however, was unconvinced. She said, “I wasn’t really in a dating mood.” She’d endured a difficult upbringing. “I was an orphan and sent to live with unkind family members. Talk about Cinderella – my life was much worse.” But at 24, she had a good job at a dry goods store and wasn’t sure she wanted to marry.

Bibin was sure enough for both of them. He patiently pursued her, and after four months he told her, “Pack your stuff because we’re eloping to New Mexico.” They were married on Nov. 24, 1947. Lou paused and looked at her husband. “I don’t think I ever got a proposal!”

She quickly discovered what life would be like as a military wife. “Right after we got married, Mike was sent to Germany and England for a month.”

Bibin shook his head. “It was a long month.” He called Lou from Germany on Valentine’s Day, but her reaction wasn’t quite what he’d expected.

“All I did was cry,” said Lou with an eloquent shrug. But she adjusted to military life and grew to love both the travel and the challenges.

“I was commissioned in 1952,” Bibin said. “I was probably the oldest second lieutenant in the Air Force.”

The couple raised two sons. “Plus we had a whole bunch of foster kids along the way,” Lou said. After 30 years in the military, Bibin retired, settling first in Denver and later moving to California. But retirement didn’t diminish the couple’s taste for adventure.

In the early ’70s, they moved to Tahiti. “We loved the climate – the beauty. I’m an artist,” said Lou. The tropical paradise inspired her creativity, and the self-taught artist captured the island’s vibrant beauty in countless paintings. “I’ve got paintings in three museums and prints all over the world.”

Tahiti hadn’t yet become the tourist attraction it is today. “It was primitive – very hard living,” Lou said. “No telephone, no radio. When it was good it was wonderful, but when it was bad it was horrible.”

After three years, they returned to the U.S. in search of a permanent home. They drove across eight states, finally ending up in Coeur d’Alene in 1983. “We didn’t know anybody,” Lou said. “But that didn’t make any difference.” The nomadic couple had finally found a place to settle.

At 93, Bibin is trim and fit. He bustled in the kitchen preparing a foam-topped, cinnamon- sprinkled cappuccino for their guest. “I keep him because he makes good coffee,” Lou, 86, confided. “It’s the only thing he makes – he burns everything else.”

As the couple reflected on their 62 years together, Lou said there really isn’t any “secret” to a happy marriage. “Like most important things, marriage is something you have to work at every day.”

And their abiding friendship has only sweetened their lifelong adventure. Lou glanced across the table at her husband and asked, “Are you still my best friend, Michael?”

He grinned. “Yes,” he said. “I am.”

Click here to comment on this story »