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Veteran recalls months in Japanese captivity

Robert Goldsworthy, a retired Air Force major general, waves to a familar face before speaking to a gathering at the Southside Senior Center. (Dan Pelle)
Robert Goldsworthy, a retired Air Force major general, waves to a familar face before speaking to a gathering at the Southside Senior Center. (Dan Pelle)

Tall and thin at 94, retired Maj. Gen. Robert Goldsworthy still carries himself with posture befitting an officer.

On June 4, a crowd gathered at the Southside Senior Center to hear his harrowing tale of the nine months he spent as a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II. Ten-year-old Ben Roth was part of that crowd. Roth wore a leather bomber jacket and sat with notebook in hand. His mom home-schools him and his sister, and had brought them to hear an eyewitness account of history.

As Goldsworthy began his story, Roth sat on the edge of his seat. “We have a saying in the Air Force, never bail out over an area you just bombed,” Goldsworthy said. “But I did that.”

A Washington State University graduate, Goldsworthy said he’d hoped to become the next Edward R. Murrow. But he was fired from his first job at a radio station. He grinned. “I guess I wasn’t very good.”

So, he joined the Army Air Corps. After earning his wings in 1940, he married Jean, his high school sweetheart. Four years later, she stood at the side of a runway and waved as her husband took off for overseas duty.

On Dec. 3, 1944, Goldsworthy and his crew aboard the B-29 dubbed the “Rosalia Rocket” – after his hometown – encountered enemy fire while on a bombing run over Tokyo.

With three engines gone and the plane on fire, Goldsworthy and his crew bailed out. Of the 12 men on the plane, only five survived the crash. Today, Goldsworthy is the only one left.

He hit the ground hard – the flesh on his hands badly burned – and was quickly surrounded by angry civilians. He understood their anger. “The fire raids killed so many people – many more than were killed when we dropped the bomb.”

After beating him, the crowd turned him over to the military police. “I was 27 years old and scared.”

Placed in a bare cell with four meager blankets, Goldsworthy was forced to sit in the middle of the room at attention for 16 hours a day. “The first day, after 15 minutes, I thought my back would break,” he recalled. “My legs were asleep, but if I moved the guards would beat me with Kendo sticks. It was torture, but I got used to it.”

What he never got used to was the hunger and the cold. Three times a day, he was given a little rice ball and maybe some water. And while there were four blankets in his cell, he was only allowed to use two. Every time he reached for another, a beating ensued.

Soon, he was moved to another prison. Goldsworthy fared no better there. “My toes were smashed – my teeth knocked out.”

In April, he was moved again. The flies, fleas and mosquitoes grew unbearable. Sometimes the prisoners were given “soup,” basically just hot water. They made a game of counting the flies in their soup. “A Marine pilot won with 27 flies,” Goldsworthy said.

Meanwhile back at home, Jean was certain he was dead. “I got a telegram,” she said. Officials told her his plane went down in flames and no one had seen a parachute. Months passed without a word.

At one point Goldsworthy was told he would be executed. Guards tied him with ropes, blindfolded him and stood him against a wall. After awhile they took him back to his cell. Hours later, they returned and once again marched him outside to await execution. “I didn’t care much,” Goldsworthy said. “I was so beaten down, hungry and cold. I just didn’t care.”

Later, he was returned to his cell untied, the blindfold removed, “And that was that.”

His only comfort was in misleading his captors. One day they took him to a downed B-17 and asked him to show them how to fly it. “I told them everything backwards,” he said, chuckling. “If they followed my instructions they would’ve never got that plane off the ground.”

As the war drew to a close, Jean found reason to hope. A relative in New York City saw a small announcement in the New York Times. “It said Robert Goldsworthy was held in solitary confinement for six months,” Jean recalled. They still don’t know why the military didn’t notify her, but it didn’t matter. “It was like somebody came back from the grave,” she said. “I knew he was alive!”

Finally, in September 1945, he was released and placed aboard a hospital ship. He stood on deck, watching the receding shoreline and said, “I never want to see Japan again. I never want to see a Japanese person or hear the Japanese language, again!”

When they reached the States he was allowed to call Jean. As he stood in the phone booth and dialed, a buddy rapped on the glass. “I found a place with the best milkshakes and sundaes!” his friend said. And Goldsworthy hung up before the call connected. At 6-foot-1, he weighed just 90 pounds. He’d lost half his body weight and was still so hungry.

But in truth, he was also scared. He hadn’t had any contact with his wife in over a year. “I was afraid to call her – afraid to hear bad news. I couldn’t bear to hear any bad news,” he said.

Goldsworthy did eventually call, and it was a bit awkward. “What do you say?” he asked.

But when he got to Spokane, Jean went with his parents to meet him. “She wore a yellow dress,” he recalled.

Jean said, “We put our arms around each other and it was like he’d never left. It was remarkable. We just went on from there.”

Unlike many World War II veterans, Goldsworthy talked at length to his wife about his experiences. While recovering at the family farm in Rosalia, his father urged him to write down all he could remember. Those recollections were eventually published in a book, “Our Last Mission.”

But he didn’t have long to recuperate. He was called to duty again, at the onset of the Korean War. Back to Japan he went.

After his tour of duty he returned to run the family farm, but stayed in the Air Force Reserves and served in the state Legislature for 16 years. And in 1997, he once again returned to Japan – this time Jean was by his side.

While vacationing in Maui, they’d met Nori Nagasawa. As an 18-year-old, she’d survived the bombing of Tokyo, but didn’t know much about the fate of American POW’s during the war. After hearing Goldsworthy’s story, she arranged a trip for him and his wife.

Fifty-eight years after his imprisonment, he walked hand-in-hand with Jean, down the road he’d traveled when he was taken prisoner. Goldsworthy participated in a peace ceremony and appeared on Japanese television. And he ate a sumptuous dinner at a restaurant situated on the site of his former prison camp. “I stuffed myself at the place where I once starved.”

At the conclusion of his talk at the senior center, the crowd lined up to shake his hand – to thank him for his service and to pose for a photo. Ben Roth beamed as his mom snapped a picture of him standing next to Goldsworthy.

Goldsworthy has never wasted time hating those who imprisoned and tortured him. “There’s no use holding on to bitterness,” he said. “I was just so grateful that I got home.”

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