JOHN Walker’s name was among those read aloud during last week’s roll call for those Bartholomew County residents who were either held as prisoners of war or were listed as missing in action in this country’s wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The roll call was part of the third annual ceremony at the POW-MIA plaza held in conjunction with the national observance. It was the first time that John’s name was included among those who were held against their will in wartime or who have literally never come home because their remains were never found.
The prior absence was not because John did not qualify. He served 14 months in a German prisoner of war camp after his fighter plane was shot down behind enemy lines during World War II. His name will now be a permanent part of the local roll call because of a doctor who listened and remembered.
Owen Forbes is a surgeon with Columbus Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. He came to Bartholomew County in early 2000 after serving a tour of duty as a surgeon on one of the Navy vessels assigned to the first Gulf War.
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John and his wife, Lois, were among his early patients. They had come to Columbus several years earlier to be near their children. Lois’ health was declining, and she died in 2009, but John continued to see Owen. It was during one of his treatments that John began to talk to the younger man about his wartime experiences.
“I’m really not sure why he wanted to talk to me in particular,” Owen said. “I got the impression that he was like a lot of individuals from those times … who simply felt that his bravery, accomplishments and experiences were just a part of ‘doing my job.’”
One possible explanation might have been the certificate on the wall of Owen’s office, attesting to his service during the war. It could have simply been a matter of one veteran talking to another.
The stories the older man recounted were both fascinating and memorable. Their relationship went beyond doctor and patient to something personal, so personal that one day the former fighter pilot came into the office with a bundle of papers and objects. The collection comprised John’s military history and correspondence detailing his experiences as both a fighter pilot and a prisoner of war. The documents were originals, materials that John asked Owen to accept, but the younger man refused, suggesting to his patient that he “keep them for his family and let me copy everything.”
Their relationship ended in June 2010 when John died at Our Hospice of South Central Indiana. Owen kept the duplicate material of his wartime service at his home.
It was detailed and included not only official documentation but detailed recollections of John’s wartime service and captivity and correspondence between him and two researchers — one French, one British — who were compiling stories about the wartime experiences of pilots captured and interned during the war.
He recounted how he was shipped to Great Britain in February 1944 and two months later flew the first of what would be 38 combat missions. Many of those stories involved strafing enemy targets. Four of them were on June 6, 1944, D-Day, and a fifth on June 7 when he and other pilots were tasked with providing air support for the invasion of Europe.
His last mission was on July 9, 1944, when he and other pilots were conducting strafing runs on a train near Angers, France. Their fire was returned by ground forces, one of which got off a round that tore through his engine. Immediately recognizing that the plane had a short life span, he pushed back the canopy shielding his cockpit from 250 mph forces, stood up and was sucked out of the plane. It was during that ejection sequence that he sustained second-degree burns to his face from the fire that was enveloping his cockpit.
Close to the ground (approximately 1,500 feet) he counted to three and pulled the rip cord on his parachute. The descent to earth was quick and painful. When he landed he was swallowed up by the parachute and struggled to unfurl it. By the time he had broken free of the material, he looked up into the muzzles of German “burp” guns held by Wehrmacht soldiers.
In later correspondence he expressed relief that his captors were members of the German army, not the notorious SS or angry civilians tempted to take the law into their own hands. He also felt lucky that he was quartered in a stalag — a prisoner of war camp run by the German Luftwaffe for captured aviators. He looked upon his 14-month internment as boring, although there was opportunity for creativity.
“He told how he and some fellow prisoners somehow managed to acquire some batteries and were able to put together a radio on which they could listen to the BBC,” Owen said.
He and the other prisoners were liberated in April 1945 by Russian forces on horseback. One of his lasting memories was the sight of his first liberator, a Russian woman on horseback with a machine pistol slung across her back.
On returning to the United States, he immediately rejoined the workforce, working for several companies, including Reliance Electric, before starting his own metal manufacturing business in Jamestown, New York. He retired in 1983 and moved to Bradenton, Florida, where he lived for several years before coming to Columbus.
During his time here, Owen struggled to get his patient to tell his wartime story but to little avail. “I had tried to have him recorded for the Veterans History Project through the Smithsonian, but he really was not interested,” he said.
That story and the materials Owen has kept for the past eight years might have faded with the passage of even more time and the loss of so many veterans of John’s generation had not a story about last week’s POW-MIA recognition event appeared in The Republic earlier in the week.
Attached to the story was a list of past and present local residents who were either prisoners or listed as missing in action, but there was no mention of John.
Owen saw the story and contacted organizers of the event to see if his friend’s name could be included in the program. Those had already been printed, but the name of John Walker was read aloud Friday along with those of 54 other local men who were imprisoned or never came home.
All because of a doctor who listened for more than symptoms and wanted to see his patient get the recognition he deserves.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at email@example.com.