Henderson County sent military personnel to every theater on globe in World War II.
One of the bleakest areas of service was on the Bataan peninsula after the fall of the Philippines in 1942. In the Bataan Death March, Japanese forces moved captured American and Filipino troops more than 60 miles through the blistering heat. An estimated 80,000 POWs started the trip, with only about 54,000 completing the journey.
One of the Americans in the struggle was James C. (Turkey Spencer) of Athens. Spencer was the Athens High School valedictorian in 1930, a decorated Boy Scout, State Representative and author of a regular column in the Athens Review called "Talking Turkey," before he joined the Army Medical Corps in 1940.
Spencer left for the Pacific a month before the U.S. entered the war. Within a few months he was a prisoner of war. After his release in 1945, Spencer told of the hardship he and the other prisoners endured at the hands of their Japanese captors. Deprived of adequate food and water, the prisoners died at a rate of about 50 a day and were buried in a common grave.
"Upon our surrender they took everything off the men. They even took my canteen of water and a mess kit of raw rice," Spencer wrote.
Spencer marched three days and nights without water. Finally, because he was a Medic, he was allowed to set up a temporary aid station. There was no medicine, but he carried water to the prisoners all through the night.
"Every man who was unable to make the march was executed," Spencer wrote.
At times Spencer broke ranks to get water, an offense that could get them executed, depending on the mood of the captors.
"One man apparently went crazy and jumped over a bridge bannister," Spencer wrote. "The Japs shot him before he hit the water."
On one occasion, Spencer witnessed the execution of three American officers who were caught trying to escape.
Spencer was wearing only a pair of shorts he had fashioned out of the pockets of discarded clothing. Men had to work on the farms and in the airport barefooted.
The Japanese demanded that their prisoners bow to all of their soldiers. American officers were commanded to salute the lowest Japanese private.
In the prison camp, the POWs weren't allowed to congregate for any reason. Until Christmas, they were not allowed to have any religious service. They were not allowed to refer to passages of scripture.
He later said he owned the only book he knew of in possession of any prisoner in the camp.
In February of 1945, the Athens Review ran a story telling of Spencer's release. He had been liberated by Allied forces in the re-taking the Philippines, making good on General Douglas McArthur's promise to return.
Within a few days, Spencer arrived in Dallas by bus from a hospital in San Francisco. He had been taking medicine to prevent the return of malaria. He said he had gained back a few of the pounds he had lost while in captivity.
The average prisoner gained about 40 pounds during their hospital stay. One man gained 100 pounds.
"I never did weigh a lot, and consequently didn't have a lot to gain back," Spencer said.
Spencer, who later served again in the Legislature and as Henderson County Judge, was awarded a Bronze Star for his wartime service. He died on Christmas Day in 2009.