AUSTIN (KXAN) - Lots of times, veterans would just as soon not talk about their war-time experiences. There's the trauma, of course, and the fear that others couldn't possibly understand.
Others, though, for reasons of their own, are willing to share their stories. And often those reasons include a calling to take note of history.
"I've always felt it was kind of my obligation; not all the POWs agree; but my obligation to share our story," said Ken Wallingford, an Army sniper veteran from the Vietnam era.
"'Let me tell you what really happened, boys and girls, or ladies and gentlemen, because you won't read about it in the history books," he said.
For 87-year-old World War II Navy submarine veteran Tim McCoy, there is a hope that talking about what happened to him will help keep the country on track.
"Change it to a country that is proud of itself and that we're full of love and that we have great respect for one another," said McCoy. "And that we try to analyze this world in which we live and live honorably in it."
Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2011, their stories were excerpted, along with 10 others from that archive, and featured in a new, "Every Veteran has a Story to Tell" exhibit in the Capitol Visitors Center at 112 E. 11th Street in Austin.
The Army Vet
Standing in the exhibit room, Wallingford grasps the hammock he slept in for 10 months in Cambodia as a prisoner-of-war in 1972 and 1973.
"We walked into this camp," he said, "and there are five tiger cages, five-by-six, made out of bamboo trees; a 10-foot chain attached to them. The other end went to my ankle, itself.
"This hammock, which I actually was able to bring back with me, stretched inside this five-by-six tiger cage. And so this was my bed."
Wallingford wound up in that jungle camp after 30,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters overran the position he was holding with four other American advisors and some 200 South Vietnamese soldiers. The attackers were attempting to reach Saigon, but with the help of Air Force bombers and precious little from the South Vietnamese, the Americans were able to hold up the advance for three days.
Finally, though, Wallingford was captured after being seriously wounded by an explosion.
"It felt like initially, half my head had been blown away," he recalled. "I had shrapnel burning different parts of my body and I literally saw my whole life flash before me.
"I thought, 'This is it.' It's an unusual feeling; because your mind just races through a scenario of different events in your life that have happened. There's no continuity to it and stuff like that, just snippets."
When he reached the Cambodian tiger cage camp with two other prisoners, life took on a somewhat predictable routine. Previous abusive treatment at the hands of the North Vietnamese had come to an end in the late 1960s, after the rest of the world got wind of the torture that had been conducted on Americans in that country. But that does not mean there were no challenges to face.
For one thing, there was the malaria.
"You just had to let it work its way through you," said Wallingford. "I mean, it's the worst sickness you could ever imagine. You just want somebody to shoot you; you just want to die. I mean, you have no desire to live. You're hungry. You know, you just want to be left alone.
"I lived with that about every six weeks with the relapses and even still today, I cannot give blood to the blood bank because of some of the parasites that are still in my blood."
Then there were the snakes.
"Daily or nightly on any give week, they would kill some of the most venomous snakes in the world," Wallingford said. "The krait snake, the green bamboo viper -- bite you, two seconds later you're dead.'
The worst of it though, was the mental games.
"Was I physically beaten and abused? No," said Wallingford. "Was I psychologically, inhumanely treated, you betcha."
One day, for example, for no apparent reason, guards came to the cage and moved Wallingford to a bunker for two days.
"It was like a hole in the ground that was big enough to have a hammock in there, to stretch the hammock out and stay in that hammock," the vet recalled.
"It was probably about three feet tall and about five feet long. I didn't want to stand up because I didn't know what was below me, snakes or scorpions or whatever. I just hung out in the hammock until they came and got me and put me back in the cage I had come from."
The Navy vet
But for Tim McCoy, the submariner, there was nothing subtle about his treatment at the hands of his Japanese captors.
The entire crew had abandoned their crippled boat after being hit by a bomb dropped from a Japanese plane.
"It's a really scary thing because what you are doing is you are leaving your home behind," said McCoy. "And then when you leaped in the water, you felt like what was going to happen is you were going to be
machine gunned. And so it was kind of a scary feeling.
"But, you know, that's what happens with young people: I was just 18 years of age and when you're 18 years of age, you really don't have that fear that a lot of people have.
"You're young; you're inexperienced; there is no fear there. It's gung-ho, you know what I mean? But it didn't take long to realize, ‘Hey, we're in a big war here.'"
The crew wound up in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
"They then worked on us for four months, 24 hours a day, torturing us 24 hours a day," said McCoy. "We went 90 days without a bite of food except one bowl of rice water without hardly a kernel of rice in it for 90 days. And they worked on us 24 hours a day.
"They worked on you with bamboo splinters up your fingernails, with rods like pencils through your fingers and so on and so forth.
"Hours after hours, down on your knees with a board planed with a razor edge, holding your hands out with two coconuts like this, and then when your hands started to fall, beating you up and down in the back.
"In addition to that, our crew was subjected to the water cure [waterboarding]. We know something about the water cure. That's not nothing new with just Afghanistan and Iraq; that's not nothing new. That's been going on a long time and I guess the Japanese and the Chinese invented that many, many, many long years ago."
As bad as it was, however, McCoy looks back on the experience with pride.
"I'm here to testify to you though, and proudly so, that not a member of our crew broke or gave aid or comfort to the enemy, not one man," he said.
"But we fought a different war then, didn't we? We were fighting for mother and we were fighting for America and we were fighting for apple pie and Chevrolet.
"And everybody in America in World War II was at war, even if you were a civilian at home, because you gave up butter or you gave up automobile tires or you gave up sugar. And you were working to help the war.
"Ever since then, as it relates to Korea or Vietnam or Afghanistan or Desert Storm or Iraq, there's none of us today at war; hardly any of us know a thing about what's going on now except what we see every once in a while right over there on the television. We're far removed and that bothers me very much."
The rest of the vets
All of these tales and many more, as well, can be found in the Veterans Land Board archive. And the people who keep up with that collection are ready to conduct other interviews, lots of them. Veterans who want to share their stories can sign up for consideration on the agency's website.
Meanwhile, the "Every Veteran has a Story to Tell" exhibit will be available in the Capitol Visitors Center for a year.
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