Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Kansas City Star
At first glance, the military reunion this week in Kansas City looked a lot like many others.

On Friday, veterans crowded the halls of the Sheraton Kansas City Sports Complex Hotel, filling a hospitality room and boarding a tour bus to the National World War I Museum at the Liberty Memorial.

One detail, however, separated this reunion from others.

That was evident with the sign-up sheet in the hotel hallway, requesting that former residents of different “camps” sign up to meet later.

Camps — as in prison camps.

The 61st national convention of the American Ex-Prisoners of War will continue through Sunday. Many of the approximately 140 veterans attending served during World War II. Among them were former German POW camp residents, as well as survivors of the Bataan Death March — the 1942 march of thousands of American and Filipino prisoners by the Japanese.

Still others in attendance were POWs during the Korean or Vietnam wars.

What all of them have plenty of — war stories — was not what they came to Kansas City to hear, said Paul Dillon of Maryland Heights, Mo.

“These guys will not let you call them heroes,” said Dillon, who attended with his father, Red Dillon, a ball-turret gunner on a B-17 bomber that was shot down over Europe during World War II. “These are ordinary people who showed the greatest valor by simply enduring under extraordinary circumstances.”

Some convention members came forth with combat details, when asked.

“I can still see it today,” Red Dillon said, detailing how he was shot down and watched airmen try to bail out of other planes.

“This one guy bailed out. His chute didn’t open. I saw him hit the ground.”

Dillon and the others came mostly for camaraderie and fellowship, said Ed Slater of Independence, a Korean War POW. Slater is a member of the organization’s Heart of America chapter, which gathers every Tuesday at the Kansas City Veterans Hospital.

The convention coincided with National POW/MIA Recognition Day on Friday. Attendees observed the occasion with a ceremony Thursday.

The Kansas City convention is occurring as a prominent former POW, Sen. John McCain, is running for president. Yet the profile of the American Ex-Prisoners of War or its members is likely no higher because of McCain, said John Clark of Columbia, an Air Force veteran who in 1972 shared space with McCain in the “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp in North Vietnam.

“These guys’ stories are compelling on their own merits,” he said.

Paul Dillon added: “I wish everybody could meet these guys. Being here is like walking into a history book. What these guys did is the stuff other people make movies about.”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-7804 or send e-mail to