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Harry McCawley | The Republic Gus Potthoff stands on the ramp built for him at his Caldwell Place home by friends Pete Jenkins and Wendell Ross. The ramp has made life a lot easier for the 90-year-old retiree who survived more than three years of imprisonment in a Japanese slave labor camp in Southeast Asia during World War II.
THERE are times when Gus Potthoff refers to the ramp leading to his Caldwell Place front porch as the “Bridge over Caldwell Creek.”
There is, of course, no Caldwell Creek in Columbus. It’s just Gus’ way of localizing the new entryway to his home.
He really has another name for the structure that has made life a lot easier for his 90-year-old body. He also calls it the “Bridge Over the River Kwai.”
That name should have a familiar ring to it for movie fans. It was the title of a film starring Alec Guinness. The movie was a fictional portrayal of the inhumane conditions that were forced upon World War II prisoners of war held by the Japanese in Southeast Asia.
It dealt with the forced construction of a railroad bridge by the prisoners and the torture inflicted upon them by their captors. The film was a work of fiction, but it was based on real-life events.
Gus was a part of those events. He was a Dutch POW who had been captured by the Japanese and forced to work alongside other prisoners in building a railroad and bridges in Burma.
He managed to escape that horrible privation, but the memories of the experience remain with him to this day, almost seven decades later.
He found a way to deal with his emotions — painting. Many of the subjects in his works deal with his experiences in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Certain images prevail: the lush countryside, bridges, railroads and angels.
“The angels are who was looking out for me,” he said recently. “They’re still looking out for me.”
Gus has never kept count of how many paintings he has produced. He’s never offered any for sale. He always gives them away.
He turned 90 earlier this year, a milestone he never could have envisioned in the darkest day of his captivity.
If anything, he emerged from the experience a man determined to live life to the fullest. He migrated to Columbus, earned a living, raised a family and became a U.S. patriot.
He is a familiar figure at the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum at Columbus Municipal Airport, where he is counted as a member of the 95ers, a group of volunteers who have been engaged in veterans support activities for more than 15 years.
The years have taken their toll on him, and recently even climbing the steps to his front porch had become a difficult labor. It was a condition noted by two of his fellow members in the 95ers — Wendell Ross and Pete Jenkins — who decided that they would build a ramp up those steps for their friend.
“We didn’t look on it as a chore,” said Wendell, former manager of Columbus Municipal Airport and a U.S. Navy veteran. “Gus has gone through so much in his life and served as an inspiration to anyone who ever met him. It was really a labor of love.”
The two men worked about a week on the project and completed it in early September.
“He and his wife, Adele, wanted to pay us for the work,” Wendell said. “We just turned them down. Next thing I knew, Adele mailed us a check to cover the cost of the materials, and we sent it back.”
That’s not to say that Gus didn’t get involved.
His son-in-law, Daryl Hemmings, recalled that midway through the ramp construction, Gus sneaked out of the house, lifted one of the side boards to his porch and proceeded to paint it green and yellow.
“It was his way of putting his personal touch on the project,” said Daryl. “I know that the green represented the jungles in Burma.”
Unfortunately the colors didn’t exactly make a good combination, and family members implored him to make another choice. Gus settled on purple, a color that does, indeed, represent a personal touch.
Gus still continues to paint. These days he is producing his art at a feverish pace. He’s getting ready for a Nov. 10 exhibit of his works at the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum.
Despite the need for his new “bridge,” Gus is pretty spry. Good thing. I suspect he has many more paintings in his future.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at email@example.com.
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