MODESTO — We talk often very loudly, proudly and sometimes defiantly about our freedoms.
Speech and religion, gun ownership, marriage equity, abortion, you name it.
Freedom from government intrusion into our personal lives (even as we gladly hand over personal information to the social networks, credit card companies and others who profit from it while hackers try to steal it).
Indeed, freedom is an American's most valued and cherished possession.
Leroy Myers understands freedom, but in a much different and perhaps deeper way than many folks.
The 93-year-old Modestan, alongside his father, spent all but a few days of his time in World War II as a prisoner of war, most of it in Japan. The Japanese took away his possessions, including his clothing. They beat him with sticks. They kicked and punched him. They starved him down to 80 pounds on a diet of vermin-riddled food. They forced him to carry sacks of concrete that outweighed him by 20 pounds.
They forced Myers and other POWs to dig their own mass grave, telling them they would be executed the moment Allied forces invaded Japan.
"It couldn't have been any worse, or you'd be dead," he said.
Instead, atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, bringing an abrupt end to the war. Japan surrendered, and the soldiers who were supposed to kill Myers and the others fled the camp to save their hides.
Suddenly, Myers was free again. Free to go home, to come and go as he pleased, to work for pay wherever he chose. To voice his opinions without fear of flogging or death.
And perhaps most poignant, he was free to forgive.
"I don't hate the Japanese," he says today. "Oh, sure, I hated them when I got back. Of course you hate the people who beat you and loved doing it. It's hard to forgive them."
But, he said, it is impossible for him to hate the Japanese woman who approached Myers and his equally emaciated father, Charles, as they worked along a road near the prison camp. She dropped two cooked sweet potatoes near them as she walked by, knowing she could have been executed for doing so.
"We stuffed them in our shirts and ate them later," Myers said. "I never tasted a candy bar that tasted better."
Nor could he hate one particular honcho a civilian overseer in the prison camp who once hid him beneath a blanket, knowing that if Japanese soldiers saw the pneumonia- stricken American in such bad shape, they would have killed him.
No, there's only so much time in life, and he doesn't want to waste it on hate.
His time as a POW mirrors that of Louis Zamperini, the Olympic athlete whose experiences were described in the book "Unbroken."
Myers' father, Charles Leroy Myers Sr., went in early 1941 to Wake Island in the South Pacific as a heavy-equipment operator. He worked for a contractor hired by the government to fortify the Marine base on the island and needed more operators. So Leroy Myers joined his dad in February to run cranes, drag lines and other machinery for what then was a whopping $230 per month.
Within hours of bombing Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, the Japanese also hit Wake. The Marines and other military, along with 1,200 private contract workers on the island, repelled the first wave and inflicted damage on the Japanese planes.
Leroy, 21 at the time, later learned he'd been inducted by the Navy as a seaman first class.
The battle lasted 15 days, until the Japanese finally seized the island Dec. 23, taking 1,606 prisoners, including more than 1,100 civilian contractors, according to various history websites.
The Japanese kept 98 U.S. civilian workers on the island and sent the others north to Japan and China, but not before making some of the prisoners Leroy Myers among them witness the beheading of one American who had escaped and been recaptured.
Leroy said he and his father were allowed to stay together because the Japanese culture values family. Even so, they spent the rest of the war waiting to be killed, just as the Japanese executed the 98 who remained on Wake Island.
Myers and his father steamed to Japan in the cargo hold of a ship, given only a cup of water and a fistful of rice each day.
They arrived in Sasebo and were taken to a labor camp in the hills several miles away, where they built the Soto Dam at a horrific cost. Fifty-three Americans and many Japanese died during construction. Father and son survived because they relied on each other. When the elder Myers injured his back, Leroy carried twice as many 100-pound concrete sacks each day to make up the difference.
When the POWs had to fight off stomach worms they got from the disgusting food they received, the elder Myers had the answer.
"They didn't let us bring anything (from Wake)," Leroy said. "But they didn't know anything about chewing tobacco. My dad had a carton of Day's Work, and they laughed at him and let him bring it. He remembered that when he was a kid, they'd take a piece of chewing tobacco and wrap it in a piece of meat and use it to worm the dogs."
Hence, they swallowed a small piece of the stuff once a week.
"We never had a problem with the worms," Leroy said.
But there was never enough food to match the calories they burned lugging heavy sacks of concrete across the gorge to the dam's mixing room. Never enough to replace the energy they spent digging graves when one of their own died. Dysentery made the food pass right through them.
The mixing room itself filled with a thick, choking dust when they emptied the sacks.
They endured the cold Japanese winters in skimpy clothing that hung on their thin frames.
Leroy once contemplated suicide and actually climbed a railroad trestle to commit the deed. But he knew if he died, his dad wouldn't survive. They were sent to another camp at Fukuoka and were there when the war ended.
They'd lost far more than four years of their lives to imprisonment. After they were captured, the Navy told the contracting firm it would no longer pay for their services. The money stopped going home to Chico, and the family home fell to foreclosure.
And because the Japanese refused to allow them to write letters home, Sylvia Myers died in 1944 never knowing her husband and son still were alive, nor did they know until they returned to the States after the war that she had died.
They had to sue the U.S. government to get their rightful 44 months of back pay, and Leroy used his to buy a ranch near Chico.
Charles Myers never fully recovered from the physical ailments and died in the 1950s. Leroy Myers, meanwhile, went on to work for Del Monte, which brought him to Modesto.
He returned twice to visit Wake Island once shortly after the war and again in the 1990s. And he went back to Japan over the past Memorial Day yes, to Sasebo and the dam he helped build to attend a ceremony at the elaborate monument remembering the 53 Americans and 14 Japanese who died there. He paid his own way, and Stars and Stripes chronicled the event.
Myers said the current residents of Sasebo claim to be completely unaware of the horrors that went on at the camp. "They don't want to talk about it. They don't want to admit they bombed Honolulu and started the war."
But he can't hate them for it. He told me he dreamed one night of a giant book that rose out of the ocean. One page held a message he since has forgotten. The facing page bore these words: "Hate is destroying the world."
"I think about the little woman and the sweet potatoes," he said. "And I think about the honcho who hid me when I was dying. I'm 93 years old. I've lived a good life. I'm going to die one of these days. I am not going to waste the time I have left on Earth hating."
He is free indeed.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.