True love triumphs over war, capture
Walt Haines has never forgotten their wedding anniversary in the 63 years — as of Monday — that he has been married to Byrna Jean.
And it isn't simply because Walt, 89, is happily married. The wedding date falls the day after the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack which drew Uncle Sam into World War II.
He wasn't at Pearl Harbor that infamous day. The then-Army Air Corps 2nd lieutenant had sailed out of the harbor on Dec. 2 aboard the troop ship USS Holbrook.
"We were five days out of Pearl when the war started," recalls the Medford resident. "Sirens went off aboard ship. Before the sunset, the ship was painted gray down to the water line. They were afraid of submarines."
Just two weeks earlier in San Francisco, on Thanksgiving morning, Walt had kissed fiancee Byrna Jean goodbye.
"I remember telling her, 'I'll see you in a year, honey,' " he recalls.
"It turned out to be a bit longer," Byrna Jean observes with a smile.
Reared in Denver, he joined the Army Air Corps in March 1941. That fall he and 50 other young pilots were ordered to the Philippines to fly B-17 bombers.
But war has a way of disrupting orders. The ship sailed to Brisbane, Australia, where the pilots quickly trained themselves to fly Navy dive bombers that had been brought in on freighters.
"I sent her cables from Australia," he says. "But all they said were, 'Hello. How are you? Walter.' "
"Everything was censored," she explains. "He couldn't say where he was or what he was doing."
In mid-February of 1942, his squadron was deployed to Java in the Netherlands East Indies. After stopping in Kupang, Timor, they headed to the island of Sumba, the easternmost island in the Netherlands East Indies.
"The guy ahead of me blew a tire when he landed and spun out right in the middle of the runway," he says. "I was the last guy to land. I had very little gas left."
He had no choice but to try to land just beyond the crashed plane. He ran out of runway before he could stop. The plane flipped over, throwing him from the aircraft, which then landed on top of him.
"My gunner, a kid named John Collins, held my head up so I wouldn't drown in the water beyond the runway," he says.
Badly injured, Walt, then 23, was left to recuperate on Sumba with Collins while the rest of the squadron flew on to Java. The two were there when the Japanese landed on the island on April 4.
"The first night I was beaten severely," Walt says. "They broke my left arm and right hand. They also broke some ribs."
The broken ribs ruptured his spleen, causing internal bleeding. A Dutch doctor who also was a prisoner told him he would die unless he was operated on to stop the bleeding.
"There was no operation, no medication," Walt says.
A month later they were moved to a camp in the Philippines where there were 100 American POWs. They stayed there until September of 1943, when the officers were moved back to a large POW camp on Java.
"I was the chief cook in that camp — all we had was rice," he says, then adds, "I still like rice. I eat it every chance I get. I love it."
"Oh Lord, yes," his wife interjects.
After being moved to several smaller camps, they were brought back to the main camp, where they were when the war ended in September of 1945.
He began a circuitous route back to the States, stopping in Calcutta, where he was interviewed by the Red Cross, whose workers sent a message to his parents in Denver notifying them he was alive.
"I hadn't heard from him — I didn't know if he was alive or dead," Byrna Jean says. "His mother phoned me. She told me, 'Walter is coming home.' "
Upon arriving in New York, the pilot boarded a train bound for Denver.
Byrna Jean, who was teaching high school at Los Gatos, Calif., flew to Denver to meet him on Nov. 9, 1945. He rolled in at 10 a.m. that day; she arrived that afternoon.
After nearly four years apart, they were finally reunited.
"We sat up all night talking," he says.
"He told me he was sorry it was hard on me and his mom," she recalls. "He said he always knew that he was going to be all right."
Walt and Byrna Jean were married in California on Dec. 8. He would earn a bachelor's degree in engineering from San Jose State University. They have three daughters.
The retired engineer, who has been receiving veterans health benefits in recent years related to his war experience thanks to assistance from the Jackson County Veteran's Service Office, looks forward to Monday.
"We will have a small celebration," he says. "It's a very private thing for us. It's our day."
"We always have the day to ourselves," she adds.
Along with memories of a war that couldn't break them apart.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.