Jeff Jardine

POW group done but uses last cash to help veterans

An era ended with the stroke of a pen.

When Charlie Majors wrote a check to the Veterans of Foreign Wars last month, it emptied the bank account of the San Joaquin Valley Chapter of American Ex-Prisoners of War and effectively ended that organization's existence.

The ex-POW group, chartered in 1972, voted to disband during its February meeting, and to give its last $1,000 and change to help rebuild the VFW Post 3199 hall destroyed by fire in August.

Once a thriving club of roughly 70 members, the ex-POWs participated in parades and did volunteer work throughout the valley. But as the cloud of old age looms over the generation of World War II veterans, the group's membership dwindled to 11 members. Six attended the February meeting, when they voted to vacate the charter. Only two — Commander Allen Sughrue and treasurer Majors — presented the final check to the VFW at a poignant ceremony March 22.

"Guys are dying off," Sughrue said. "That's what's happened to our organization. We're all World War II vintage. We didn't have any newer ones in there."

For whatever reason, the group didn't succeed in attracting ex-POW members from the Korean or Vietnam wars. Also, some local World War II POWs didn't know the organization existed. Chuck Walker, a fighter pilot shot down over Hungary and captured in 1944, found out about it only when he met Sughrue, 84, last summer. Both now live at the Samaritan Village retirement community and, as they learned upon meeting, had been in the same prison in Budapest at the same time.

The valley's ex-POW group got its charter at least 15 years before Sughrue, a lifelong Modestan, heard of it.

"I didn't know about it, either, until about 1987 or '88," Sughrue said. "When I found about it, I joined."

He's served as commander for many years because few others stepped up to run it as membership declined, he said.

At its peak, the group included several who survived the merciless Japanese soldiers during the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines in 1942. Sughrue survived an 86-day prisoner march in northern Germany while the Germans drove Walker along a different trek that went south of Berlin and lasted 89 days.

Majors was shot down twice over Europe. He found his way back to England the first time, but was captured the second.

"Not too many were shot down twice," Sughrue said.

By the time they voted to disband in March, all 11 remaining members were among those imprisoned in Europe. Melvin Routt, the last of the group held by the Japanese, died in August.

While they didn't have much left in their treasury, they wanted it to benefit veterans here.

"In our organization, when a chapter gets down to 10 members, (the national ex-POW organization) recommends closing it," Sughrue said. "If you haven't spent your money, they want you to send it back to the national organization. That helps them. But we decided not to go that route."

Sughrue also is a member of the VFW, whose 46-year-old building at 2801 W. Hatch Road became the target of teenage arsonists last summer. He and other ex-POWs decided the money should go toward the rebuilding effort.

Fire officials estimated the damage at $1 million. The insurer will cover only about $300,000 toward rebuilding, including contents, post Commander Donna Huggins said. So the VFW is trying to raise money to offset replacement costs, and every dollar will help.

Among the irreplaceable items: a showcase of Sughrue's medals and some documents from his POW days.

"He'll have another spot in the post if he wants to put up another display," Huggins said.

The VFW has enjoyed greater success in drawing new members from recent wars.

But they, too, are losing their World War II vets to old age, and that makes them appreciate the ex-POW group's parting gift.

"These are incredible, incredible people, to live through what they've done and come back and share their experiences," Huggins said. "It meant so much to have them come out and visit like that. Everybody's eyes filled up with tears. God love 'em for the things they've done. You want to just reach out and hug them."

Better do so soon. They're part of an era that, like their organization, is coming to an end.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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