This Veterans Day, Ken Vick has more to remember about World War II than most. His memories are rough ones and put a lump in your throat when he tells his stories. He was a prisoner of war under the inhumane rule of the Japanese soldiers in the Philippines. He survived the Bataan Death March, and then was sent to Fukuoka, Japan, as a POW to work in the Japanese coal mines. This was a time in the war of “take no prisoners,” and if they did, the prisoners were abused beyond anything you could imagine. But Sgt. Ken Vick, armament specialist, lived through it and shared his memories with me recently as we sat with his wife Ollie at his home in Toluca Lake.
In their living room there were Ken’s well-earned medals hanging on the wall. He enlisted in the Army Air Corp as a teenager eager to serve his country. He said that he enjoyed his time in San Francisco and the camaraderie with his Army buddies before being shipped to the Pacific. That was before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and he was faced with the war years. When that happened he was stationed in the Philippines, and like thousands of others, was captured to become a prisoner of war. He was wounded and was a POW for four years. Four long and brutal years when his only good thoughts were of surviving and getting back to the United States to enjoy steak and mashed potatoes.
“We didn’t meet until the war was over,” Ollie explained. “But Ken told me that he and the other prisoners would talk about steak dinners with mashed potatoes, and all the good things he was going to come back to. That gave him the strength to hold himself together.” Ollie added that Ken told her that he “knew the night before who was going to be dead in the morning by the fact that they had no will to live. But Ken had a very strong will to get back home.”
Ironically, among the worst times Ken said he experienced was while on Japanese ships taking him and thousands of American G.I.’s who were forced to work in the coal mines. American bombers attacked and sunk the ships he was on. “In all, I was on three ships that were bombed by American pilots who only knew they were bombing Japanese ships. I went through a lot, especially on those prison ships. The first ship I was on, the American dive bombers sunk the ship. The guy in front of me died, the guy behind me was wounded, and I was okay. Now how do you figure that when we were side by side? I swam to shore and was recaptured.”
Ken said, “I had a pretty rough time, but I survived. The very first day of the war I was sitting in a P40 and the Japanese started bombing us. I jumped out of the plane and machine guns started firing all around us but didn’t hit me. And I said ‘You’ve had your chance, now you’ll never kill me.’ I believed that. From then on I knew darn well I was going to live through it.”
He remembered that it was the bombing of Hiroshima (the first atomic bomb) that really saved his life and the other captives. The Japanese soldiers realized they had been defeated and abandoned the prisoners. Ken returned to the U.S., disabled and requiring a lot of rehabilitation. Ollie worked for the movie manufacturing Bevelite Corporation, and that’s where she met Ken, who will celebrate his 93 birthday on Dec. 29, 2012. And they celebrated their 60th anniversary this year.
Ken does stay in touch with a guy from his squadron, but doesn’t attend Veterans Day services. Instead, the Vicks fly their own American flag every day from their balcony overlooking Riverside Drive in Toluca Lake. It irritates him to think of those who don’t fly the flag and show it respect. “We don’t take it for granted. We fly the flag every day, not just on Veterans Day.”
Ollie mentioned that when they stroll down Riverside Drive, “sometimes people will recognize his veteran’s hat and stop and shake Ken’s hand.” So whether it’s Veterans Day or not, if you see Ken Vick, don’t hesitate to take the opportunity to say “thank you” for his service.
As a U.S. Army veteran who served as a Master Sergeant during WWII, I was proud to say thanks to Ken, and I’ll be flying my flag too.