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Former POWs gather for meeting in Lodi

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Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2002 10:00 pm

They sat around tables, eating, talking, exchanging stories, their accounts checkered with painful memories - memories of a shared past spent as prisoners of war, an unthinkable experience not many people can relate to.

Members of the Delta and Sacramento chapters of POWs met Saturday in the banquet room at the Omega restaurant in Lodi.

Many of the former POWs had fought in World War II, some in Vietnam and a few in the Korean War. There were several members who had been civilian POWs, captured overseas in wartime.

Though the two chapters had met before in the Sacramento area, this particular meeting was the first time the Sacramento 49ers had ventured to Lodi, thanks to an invitation by Gilbert Woehl, vice-commander of the Delta Chapter of Lodi.

"We had a great turnout here today. I'm glad we got them down here," he said.

After the Pledge of Allegiance, the invocation was delivered by Catherine Hoskins, the 49ers' chaplain, and a former prisoner of war.

Born in Manila to American parents, Hoskins had gone back to the United States to study at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. She had returned to the Philippines on a break from college when she was taken prisoner along with her entire family in their hometown of Manila.

The year was 1942. Hoskins was just 20 years old.

She was held at Santo Tomas internment camp, which was, ironically, on university grounds.

After being liberated by the 44th Tank Battalion attached to the 1st Cavalry Division and the 37th Infantry of the United States Army, the 23-year-old Hoskins returned by ship to the United States with her family.

"We had nothing here. Everything we had was taken away or destroyed back in Manila," she said. "But we started over; just pulled ourselves up by the boot straps and started over."

Looking around the room, Hoskins shook her head.

"It's fascinating, having all of us here. We did make it. There were so many times I wasn't sure we would."

About former 50 POWs attended the meeting.

They introduced themselves to the others in the room and gave a brief description of their time spent as a POW.

Jim Skarles, commander of the Delta Chapter, lingered after the meeting adjourned, with Dorothy, his wife of 53 years.

Skarles was 23 when he was shot down over occupied France in his Martin Marauder, a B-26 fighter plane.

He was flying his 43rd mission in the Army Air Corps, when on Aug. 4, 1944, German fire brought his plane down over Chartres, France.

Sitting in his chair Saturday, Skarles recounted the day as if it had just happened.

After being hit with enemy fire, Skarles was forced to bail out of his plane. "It's like being in a vacuum," he said. "There's all the noise in the cockpit and then when you bail out, you're sort of floating suspended in the air. And all of a sudden the ground comes rushing to you."

Skarles hit the ground so hard he twisted his knee and sprained his ankle.

"I was laying there on the ground in the middle of a field trying to gather up my parachute and off in the distance, I could see a cloud of dust coming toward me," he said.

Tangled in his white, silk parachute, the young Skarles could do nothing but lay and wait, hindered by his injuries. From the dust cloud emerged a command car full of four German soldiers with sub-machine guns.

Getting out of their car, the soldiers walked up to Skarles and said, "Allas ist kaput."

"For you the war is over is what he meant," Skarles said.

The soldiers gathered up the injured pilot, removed his harness and relieved him of his .45 pistol.

Skarles was taken to a train station and loaded in a box car headed to Poland. As the war was ending, like so many of his fellow comrades who had been taken prisoner by the Germans, Skarles' camp was evacuated, the prisoners taken to Germany. And there, along with 12,000 other POWs, began what is known as the 90-day Death March.

"The Germans were losing the war and the Allies were closing in," Skarles said. "They didn't want us POWs to be recaptured, so they just marched us around all over Germany. The winter that year, 1945, was supposed to have been one of the coldest on record."

Cold, frostbitten and malnourished, nearly 7,700 POWs were thought to have died during that time. But on April 26, 1945, Skarles was liberated and back in Allied hands.

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