Importance of remembrance: Daughter tells story of POW father’s experience

The daughter of a World War II prisoner of war described to about 50 people how it took her many years to learn and understand the torture and hardships her father endured — and why it’s important to remember.

Brigitta Hemmings was a guest speaker during Friday’s fifth annual POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony at the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans.

Her father, Gustav “Gus” Potthoff, who died at age 94 on Dec. 22, seldom talked to anyone about the three-and-a-half years he spent being held captive by the Japanese in Thailand, Hemmings said. That included colleagues at Cummins Inc., where he worked for 22 years, and even family.

About 15,000 of his fellow POWs died while building the notorious Burma-Siam Railway in an ordeal dramatized in the 1957 Academy Award-winning film “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

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But one night while putting his daughter to bed, Potthoff told her how he used to ride elephants, Hemmings said. It would be several years later that she learned elephants were used by the POWs to clear timber in the Thailand jungles, she said.

Another story he told was about being so close to a tiger that he could see the cat’s eyes glow in the dark, the daughter said. As an adult, she discovered tigers roamed freely in the area where he father was being held, Hemmings said.

While he would talk about being hit with bamboo sticks, Potthoff would only identify the culprit as someone “who wasn’t happy,” his daughter said.

“This is slowly how he presented his other life,” Hemmings said. “It wasn’t that he was ashamed. But how could he relate to other people what he went through?”

After her father retired from Cummins in 1987, he created paintings that depicted his time as a POW, she said. That’s what prompted her first adult conversation with Potthoff on his long captivity.

“I wondered, ‘How anybody could endure 42 months of torture and beatings, not being allowed to eat, and being forced to work regardless of how you felt?'” Hemmings said. “He said they ate whatever the monkeys ate.”

After pointing out that her father had been raised in a Indonesian Christian orphanage from the age of 2, Hemmings said she’s convinced his religious faith was also instrumental in his survival.

“Today, I shake my head to think about people who have been killed because of the color of their skin or their religious beliefs,” Hemmings said. “It can happen again. Sometimes, I think it is happening, but we either don’t know — or don’t want to know. But we need to know. And we can never forget.”

AMVETS State Commander Kenny Burton, the second guest speaker, shared the importance of not forgetting those listed as missing in action by telling the story of Army Sgt. Max Harris.

The Monticello man died while en route to a POW camp in September 1951 during the Korean War, but his remains were not discovered until 2005. DNA tests recently confirmed the remains are those of Harris. A funeral with full military honors was conducted in the soldier’s hometown just a few weeks ago on Aug. 27.

“This is why we are here,” Burton said in regard to the POW/MIA ceremony.

Two more local military members will have their legacies remembered for the future. During the ceremony, it was announced that the names of U.S. Army Sgt. Jonathon M. Hunter and U.S. Marines Cpl. John C. Bishop will be carved into the stone pillars of the Veteran’s Memorial on Sept. 21.

Hunter, 23, a 2011 Columbus East High School graduate, died Aug. 2 when a suicide bombing attack on a NATO convoy in southern Afghanistan killed him and another U.S. soldier.

Bishop, 25, a 2003 North grad, died Sept. 8, 2010 in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan while serving with the 2nd Battalion 9th Marines when his company was ambushed while on patrol.

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“I wondered, ‘How anybody could endure 42 months of torture and beatings, not being allowed to eat, and being forced to work regardless of how you felt?'”

— Brigitta Hemmings, daughter of World War II prisoner of war Gustav “Gus” Potthoff