A 95-year-old World War II POW joined wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans recently for a gator hunt in rural Polk County. But it wasn’t the hunt that made this experience so extraordinary – it was the sharing of stories between the generations that made it special.
There are some things that veterans just don’t feel comfortable talking about, except possibly with another veteran.
That sacred bond, between veterans, can transcend time and different wars – especially among those wounded, disabled or experienced in combat.
Providing a setting that gives veterans a chance to establish those special bonds has become the joint mission of several organizations including the non-profit, community based Wounded Warrior Sportsmen Fund and Operation Outdoor Freedom, a program with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
In the past year, they’ve sponsored more than 70 hunting, fishing and canoeing trips in Florida for more than 400 wounded veterans.
In December, that included a gator hunt at Lake Hancock. It’s a large lake southeast of Lakeland that’s filled with alligators and surrounded by moss-draped cypress, maple and willow trees.
What made the three-day event extra special was a visit from World War II veteran Jasper G. Taylor, who prefers to be called Tracy.
The 95-year-old veteran survived 3 years, 5 months and 28 days as a prisoner of war in Japan.
“I guess I am, but I’m not, a wounded warrior,” Taylor said as he addressed about a dozen veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “I didn’t have any combat injuries. I don’t have a Purple Heart.”
But he told the younger wounded warriors that maybe he qualified as part of their band because of the abuse he suffered while a POW. Taylor was an Army Air Corps radio operator who was captured after the surrender of Corregidor in the Philippines in May, 1942.
“They couldn’t speak any English and we couldn’t speak Japanese and 90 percent of the time we didn’t understand what they were saying or doing,” Taylor said to the group gathered around a smoldering campfire. “They would enforce their commands with bayonets or anything else.”
Taylor said the POWs were forced to “clean up” Corregidor and then shipped out to an indoctrination camp in Taiwan for weeks and later to Japan where he was forced to work at the Mitsubishi shipyard and later in a copper mine.
“Anybody know anything about the Japanese culture?” Taylor asked his audience of fresh veteran faces. “Well, every morning they get up and they face the sun, they face east, pledge their allegiance to Emperor of Japan. Well, when we got there we had do the same thing. The only thing was, all the way down line, the only thing you heard was ‘Go to hell, you son of a b—h. And that kind of made it worthwhile.”
The group laughed at Taylor’s resilient response and at many of his stories that went on for close to an hour.
Throughout the chat, he routinely sprinkled in a humorous twist or silver lining when describing his life as a POW. For example, Taylor told of convincing the prison camp interrogator that he was a barber instead of a North Carolina farm boy.
“Only hair I ever cut was the mane or the tail on mule or horse,” Taylor said. But he embellished out of necessity to become the prison camp’s barber because he could no longer walk due to malnutrition.
“I wound up with beriberi and was numb from waist down for six months,” Taylor said. “That worked in my favor. I didn’t have to go to the shipyard because I couldn’t walk.”
His weight dropped from 120 to 87 pounds while a POW.
Yet when asked about the abuse he suffered and witnessed, Taylor was sparse with his descriptions. He later shared, privately, that he promised himself a long time ago that he would talk about what happened to him as a POW, but would not talk about the torture because nothing would be gained by it.
It wasn’t all talk. The young veterans and volunteers loaded into ATVs and took Taylor out to “bag” a gator. There were three gators caught and killed.
The veterans ended the morning helping Taylor kneel down to take a photo to remember their successful hunt. The gators were then taken to be processed for their meat and skins which are shared with the veterans afterward.