NEW BUFFALO — Eight New Buffalo area World War II veterans who spent time as prisoners of war were honored during a Sept. 16 tribute ceremony held at the New Buffalo Railroad Museum.
“Today we pay tribute to the memory of eight brave New Buffalo area men who fought in World War II, were captured and interned as Prisoners of War,” read a message on the front page of the event program.
Those honored (who have all passed away) are: Carpenters Mate 3rd Class Robert A. Barnes; Staff Sergeant Howard ‘Hop’ Covert; 2LT Richard Hahn; Tech 5 Premysl Krestan; PFC Harold Maerz; Staff Sergeant George Bond; 1LT Joseph Zizlavsky; and 1LT Harold D. Cook.
Jim Smitchger, Curator of the Veterans Exhibit at the New Buffalo Railroad Museum and Master Chief Petty Officer U.S. Navy (Retired), said the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy invaded the Philipines in January 1942, resulting in Allied military forces being consolidated on the Bataan Peninsula for a last-stand fight (the peninsula and Island of Corregidor were the only remaining Allied strongholds in Southeast Asia).
He said American and Filipino troops were able to hold off the Japanese for three months before surrendering on April 9, 1942.
“A total of 78,000 prisoners of war were forced to make an arduous 65-mile march from Bataan to Japanese prison camps outside Manila. The march was characterized by severe physical abuse and wanton killings. As many as 15,000 Filipinos and 600 Americans died during the ordeal. It became known as the Bataan Death March.”
On May 6, 1942, Smitchger said the last troops surrendered on the island of Corregidor.
“Among those troops was a young sailor from New Buffalo. Fast forward to this year. On August 15th, which happens to be VJ (Victory in Japan) Day, the USS BATAAN flew a special flag from their mast. It was flown not only marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Bataan, this flag was flown in memory of that young New Buffalo sailor, Carpenter’s Mate 3rd Class Robert A. Barnes. The flag is here today – it is the one we just hoisted on our flag staff (members of the American Legion Post 169 Honor Guard paraded the colors and raised it). Upon completion of this ceremony the flag will be retired and it will become a permanent part of the Veterans Exhibit.”
Keynote speaker LCDR T. R. Shaw, Jr., U. S. Navy (Retired), talked of the importance of recognizing the sacrifices made by soldiers “who went well beyond the call of duty as prisoners of war or missing in action” on POW-MIA Day (the third Friday of September).
Shaw said he got to know a few former prisoners of war during his time in the Navy including Tuskegee Airman LT. Col. Alex Jefferson of Detroit (who passed away at the age of 100 last month as “a legend in the Red Tail community” and a witness to the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp); and Sen. John McCain, “a fellow Navy officer who was captive in the Hanoi Hilton for five brutal years. Few Americans have ever endured what McCain faced, yet he went on to serve this national faithfully to the end.”
Shaw is a Central Michigan and Wayne State University graduate who served on active duty from 1982 to 1987. Following assignments onboard the USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER and the USS CHARLESTON, he transferred to the Naval Reserve where he served as a Public Affairs Officer. He retired from the Navy in 2005, remains active in the military community, and is an author (“Defy The Immediate; A Journey of Failure, Perseverance and Success”).
“Throughout my encounters with former POWs I’m amazed at the brutality and struggles that they endured. How was it humanly possible I ask myself,” Shaw said. “The men we are honoring here today also faced those demons.”
Shaw said Special Tributes have been issued by Governor Whitmer and Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist, reading a proclamation – The State of Michigan joins family, friends, and all those who were fortunate enough to cross paths with the eight men we honor here today in commending their courageous and selfless contributions to our state and nation – and the following citations detailing each honoree’s POW experiences:
ROBERT ALLEN BARNES
Robert enlisted in the Navy in 1938 where he was first assigned as a seaman onboard the USS Maryland. His next assignment was with the crew of USS Bittern, a mine sweeper operating out of the Philippines. It was on this assignment where Lieutenant General Wainwright was forced to surrender all American forces in the Philippines to the Japanese. Petty Officer Barnes was onboard the Nissyo Maru, which was a part of the aptly named ‘Hell Ships,’ when he was transported from the Philippines to Japan after 2 years at a prison stockade in Manila. Once in Japan, he, alongside many others, was marched to the POW camp in Nagoya and was used as slave labor for the Daido Electric Steel Company and the Nippon Vehicle Manufacturing Company. While working, Petty Officer Barnes was injured,
crushing his foot that was then left untreated. He endured many beatings by guards, losing sight in one eye. In 1945, Emperor Hirohito surrendered, stopping work at the factories and causing the prisoners to be returned to camp. The guards then surrendered, allowing the prisoners of war to take control of the camp. In 1945, Robert was transported back to the United States where he received treatment. Robert remained on active duty with the Navy until his retirement in 1959 as a Damage Controlman First Class. For his service during World War II, he was awarded the American Campaign Medal, The Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II and the Victory Medal.
GEORGE W. BOND
On November 26, 1943, Staff Sgt Bond was flying his sixth combat mission and filling in as a tail-gunner on the crew of “Murder, Inc” which was scheduled to fly their last mission to Bremen, Germany. Despite a good pre-fight inspection, a faulty engine jeopardized the fight and the crew has to switch to a back-up aircraft – named “Aristocrap.” Changing planes had delayed their launch ten to fifteen minutes so when the crew got airborne they had difficulty find the 351st Bomb Group – there were planes all over the sky. They eventually attached ourselves as the last plane, “tail-end Charlie,” to a group that was just starting out over the English Channel. When the B-17s arrived over Holland there were supposed meet up with American fighter planes for an escort into Germany. The sky was full of B- 17’s but there were no fighter planes.
Despite encountering heavy anti-aircraft fire and attacks from enemy fighter aircraft, the crew was able to drop their bombs on target. The airplane however, was badly damaged by several hits and the pilot could not turn the B-17 and head for home. As the crew few deeper into German territory as many as six fighter aircraft concentrated their fire on the aircraft and it soon burst into fames. The crew forced to bail out. The pilot, co-pilot and radio operator perished. Those who survived were captured by a German patrol within minutes of hitting the ground. Staff Sergeant Bond was held at Stalag 17B.
For his service during WWII, S/Sgt Bond was awarded the Air Medal, Purple Heart, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three Bronze Campaign Stars, American Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
HAROLD D. COOK
On August 15th, 1944, the 45th Infantry Division, also known as “Thunderbirds”, participated in the invasion of southernFrance in “Operation Dragoon”. Because there was a shortage of Infantry Officers in the Division, Lieutenant Cook transitioned from an artillery officer to an Infantry Platoon Leader. During the Battle of the Bulge, Lieutenant Cook and his men were one of four platoons cut-of from the main body of the 45th. Out of food and running low on ammunition, these platoons found themselves surrounded and eventually captured by German forces. During his combat service in France from August to December 1944, Lieutenant Cook was wounded three times. For his battlefield experiences and achievements, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart with 2 oak leaf clusters, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with four Bronze Campaign Stars, American Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal. Lieutenant Cook ended his active military service in July 1945. He returned to Michigan State University to continue work on a degree in chemistry.
HOWARD ‘HOP’ COVERT
Staf Sergeant Howard Covert enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 194A and was assigned to the Army Air Transport Command. After specialized training, he began serving as an in-flight Radio Operator while on detached service with the Royal Air Force and based in Canada and England. He few on various types of aircraft, hauling cargo and passengers to Europe as well as ferrying, or transporting, PBY5 Catalina aircraft from U.S. and Canadian Defense Plants to England for use by allied forces. On April 6, 1943, S/Sgt Covert and his crew departed Elizabeth City, North Carolina en route to Scotland via Bermuda flying a PBY5 Catalina, Flight FP138. Unfortunately, they did not make it to their destination. 23 hours after their departure, the aircraft received a message to divert to Portsmouth, England as their original destination on the Scottish coast had weather problems. However, three hours later, they found themselves of course and near the coast of Normandy. Running short of fuel, the captain chose to down the aircraft in a coastal inlet, but came under fre from anti-aircraft guns. The pilot downed the damaged aircraft near a rocky outcrop, two miles offshore. The aircraft then sank and three of the crew, including S/Sgt Covert, managed to swim to a nearby rock. They were later rescued by fishermen only to become prisoners of war.
Since S/Sgt Covert was an American on a British aircraft, the German soldiers mis-identified him as an Intelligence Officer and held him at Ofag 7A, Moosburg Bavaria. In October 1943, once determining he was in fact a Sergeant, he was transferred to Stalag 17B near Krems, Austria.On May 3, 1945, the camp was liberated by a squad of U. S. Soldiers of the 13th Armored Division. S/Sgt Howard “Hop” Covert was released from Active Duty on October 13, 1945. For his service during WWII, he was awarded the Air Medal, European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Bronze Air Campaign Star, American Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal.
RICHARD E. HAHN
On March 19, 1945, Lieutenant Hahn joined Mission 896, flying a P-51 to guide B-17s to destroy an optical works facility. Many of the aircraft were lost in the aerial battle, and Richard was among those who crashed. He was captured by enemy forces and became a prisoner of war. These prisoners were force-marched in extreme conditions.
Winter 1945 was one the coldest of the 20th century in Europe, with blizzards and temperatures as low as –13 degrees. POWs had little or nothing in the way of food, clothing, shelter or medical care. Hundreds died from exhaustion and disease. The Germans troops and their POWs finally came face-to-face with western Allied armies – for some, this brought liberation. Others were not so lucky. Richard was one of the lucky ones. He was liberated by soldiers of the 1A1st Airborne Division on May 2, 1945.
A New Buffalo High School Class of 1939 graduate, Second Lieutenant Richard Hahn, was awarded the Air Medal, WWII Victory Medal, and European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronee campaign stars, and American Campaign Medal.
PREMYSL J. KRESTAN
Tech 5 Premysl J. Krestan, a tank crewman, was wounded in the battle of Kasserine pass and captured. He and fellow prisoners were transported by sea and land to Stalag 3B in Furstenberg Brandenburg, Prussia. Once in Prussia, Premysl would often spend time at satellite POW camps where, on more than one occasion, he escaped – only to be recaptured. On April 22, 1945, three weeks before Germany surrendered, Stalag 3B was liberated by the Soviets.
Unfortunately, POWs had to fend for themselves – no food, transportation, or medical attention. Prisoners had a long and arduous journey back to allied lines. It would be nearly two months before Tech 5 Krestan would be repatriated.
For his WWII service, Tech 5 Premsyl Krestan was awarded the Purple Heart Medal for wounds received during combat, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Bronze Campaign Star, American Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal.
HAROLD L. MAERZ
Private First Class Harold L. Maerz was drafted into the Army in 1943. After boot camp and infantry training, he reported for duty with the 94th Infantry Division. The 94th was activated a year earlier at Fort Custer near Kalamazoo, Michigan, and deployed to Europe for combat in August 1944. After a grueling battle ending in a separation of their troop, the men were forced to surrender to the Germans. The POW camp held 25,000 allied soldiers in deplorable conditions during some of the harshest winter weather ever recorded in Europe. Prisoners slept four to a wooden cot, stacked three high and relied on straw to keep warm since there were few blankets. Rations consisted of hot-water soup with a chunk of potato and/or rutabaga twice a day. Frostbite and hypothermia were common, and hundreds of prisoners died daily – buried by their comrades. Maerz was a prisoner of war from Jan 21, 1945, to April 16, 1945, when his camp was liberated by the British.
He was released from Active Duty on November 22, 1945. For his service during WWII, Harold Maerz was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with four Bronze Campaign Stars, American Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal.
Lieutenant Zizlavsky enlisted in the Army Air Corps on June 13, 1941 and served as Bombardier in the 491st Bomber Squadron operating from a small airfield near Chakulia, India. In 1943, Lieutenant Zizlavsky took off with a crew on a bombing mission to delay movement of supplies to the Japanese troops fighting in northern Burma. Their aircraft was hit by anti- aircraft fire and crashed, leaving three crew members alive who were taken prisoner. Joseph died in captivity on July 15, 1944.
After the end of WWII, crews from the American Graves Registration Service were dispatched to Rangoon to exhume and return the remains of fallen American airmen. In May of 1946, a C-47 carrying Joseph’s remains crashed while en-route from Rangoon to Calcutta, and unfortunately Joseph’s remains have not been recovered from the crash site.
Joseph has a “Cenotaph” here at Pine Grove Cemetery where his parents are buried.
For his heroic WWII service was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart, Asiatic–Pacifc Campaign Medal, and WWII Victory Medal.
Although our state has lost exceptionally brave men, may we all take solace in the knowledge that their memory will live on forever in the hearts of those who were touched their legacy of resilience and strength.
Medals & Certificates
The Prisoner of War Medal, a military award of the United States Armed Forces authorized by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on 8 November 1985. The Medal is to be issued only to U.S. military personnel who were taken prisoner and held captive while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States. Award of the medal was made retroactive to World War I.
The Sept. 16 ceremony included the presentation of Prisoner of War Medals, The State of Michigan Tribute, and a Certificates of Special Senatorial Recognition for each of the veterans to family members of honorees (and the reading of Certificates of Special Senatorial Recognition for those whose relatives were unable to travel to New Buffalo). Julian Sanders, the West Michigan Regional Coordinator for Senator Gary C. Peters, attended the ceremony.
Those accepting medals and certificates on Sept. 16 included: Judy Roth Fegley (niece of Robert A. Barnes); Kevin Covert (son) and Shirley Covert (wife of Howard ‘Hop’ Covert); Diana (Cook) McCotter (great niece of Richard Hahn); Kim Krestan (daughter of Premysl Krestan); Sandy Galinowski (daughter of Harold Maerz).
Arrangements have been made to deliver certificates and medals to family members unable to attend the ceremony.
Performing the National Anthem was Abby Douglass, a School of American Music voice student and F.C. Reed Middle School seventh-grader.
American Legion Post 169 Chaplain Chuck Baran provided the invocation and benediction.