George Vasil’s tale of his fight for freedom from a Nazi prison camp may sound like a movie plot, but for him, it was a very real, life-changing experience.
In 1943, Vasil was flying his ninth mission of World War II. The airman’s task was to bomb a shipyard in Kiel, Germany, but his B-17 bomber was shot down by Luftwaffe fighters.
He spent the next two years in a Nazi prison camp, where he risked his life to help build 350-foot-long escape tunnels 40 feet underground. Those tunnels and the prisoners who dug them inspired the film “The Great Escape.”
Because of the perilous journey Vasil endured, he was selected as this year’s keynote speaker at the Prisoner of War Remembrance Day program Friday at Spokane’s VA Medical Center.
The Germans found one of the tunnels and closed it up, Vasil said, but despite the threat of being shot, “that didn’t bother the Americans and the British from continuing digging.”
“They continued with a greater effort on the other two tunnels they were working on,” he said.
The American soldiers were moved to a different camp and Vasil never escaped through the tunnels, but many British soldiers eventually did.
Vasil’s own freedom finally came in April 1945 when American troops began liberating Nazi prison camps.
POW Remembrance Day is held each April 9 to mark the anniversary of the 1942 Bataan Death March, when sick and starving U.S. forces surrendered to invading Japanese troops on the Bataan peninsula on Luzon island. This year is the 69th anniversary of the death march.
After surrendering, 10,000 American soldiers and thousands of Filipinos were marched 70 arduous miles to a prison camp. An estimated 600 to 650 American soldiers died along the way from dehydration, wanton attacks and sheer exhaustion.
Several survivors of the Bataan Death March were present at the program; but POW Remembrance Day doesn’t honor just those captured in Bataan. It honors all veterans who survived wartime captivity.
“America’s former Prisoners of War fought fiercely and served with honor and distinction under the worst conditions,” said Mike Ogle of the Spokane Vet Center to a standing-room-only crowd. “They demonstrated personal courage, selflessness and unflagging loyalty to their country.”
Mayor Mary Verner was on hand to proclaim April 9, 2011, POW Remembrance Day.
“These are real life stories of courage and of true patriotism,” she said. “This is not flag waving – these folks were truly at the point of losing their lives in service of our country. These are not Hollywood stories. These are real people that lived through this experience.”