WARREN — What U.S. Air Force veteran James Green remembers most about his World War II years are the “sounds of people dying.”
“The sounds just haunt you. I hear them every single day,” said Green, who served from 1943-46 and spent four months in a Japanese prison camp. “I go to sleep each night thinking about what could I have done to save somebody. Did I do things right?”
On Nov. 12, one day after the observance of Veterans Day, Green visited Chatterton Middle School to share his story with two social studies classes that his daughter-in-law Marie Green teaches.
“I want them to understand how brutal a Japanese prison camp is,” Green, 87, said. “There are things indelible in my mind from the experience and how it has affected me.”
Chatterton, where Green was assistant principal from 1970-82, is part of Fitzgerald Public Schools. His visit was held in the media center, and he brought his wife Mary Ellen with him.
The Warren resident didn’t hold back when telling the details of being captured, beaten and starved by the Japanese military. The B-29 top bubble gunner was stationed on the South Pacific island of Tinian. During a bombing run to Tokyo to knock out a radio tower, Green was shot down over Japan in May 1945.
“The Japanese knew you were coming,” he said.
Green was able to parachute himself out of the plane. On the way down, he “hit a bunch of trees” and remembers dogs chasing him. He found a garden, where he lived on radishes and hid out for four days.
“Japan is a beautiful country,” he said. “It’s hilly. There are little ‘gingerbread houses’ in the valley.”
While crossing a wheat field to further escape, two men spotted Green, and he was captured and taken to an Army camp. That’s where the torture began. Green said he was interrogated for 15 days.
“The first question they asked me was, ‘What is the name of your crew?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’” He told them he was a weatherman and invented a place from which he flew in. “I lied a lot. I asked the good Lord to forgive me for lying.”
The serviceman was tied up to a clothesline, and several men beat him with a bayonet. Green was given a pair of shorts to wear: his only attire for four months. He was called a “special prisoner.”
“I never took a bath, brushed my teeth, had any water to wash my hands. No blanket, no pillow, no bed. I was in a cell by myself. We call them cells, but they were horse stables.”
He told the students that, while in the prison camp, he had to sit up straight from 5 a.m. until sundown.
“You can’t lean back,” he said. “They’ll shoot you.”
During his capture, the veteran’s weight dropped to 87 pounds, and his throat swelled up. He didn’t receive any medical treatment for any wounds he suffered.
“I didn’t feel nothing,” he said. “You’re like an animal all the time.”
Green and the other prisoners were released when the U.S. Marines came in, about four months later.
Out of 188 members in his squadron, Green said only 12 survived.
“A lot of people get killed. That’s what war is,” he said. “When you’re in a battle, you’re like a rabbit in a hole with somebody with a gun shining a light on you.”
The veteran earned two general medals and one Purple Heart.
“To me, it’s my life,” he said.
Despite the torment, there’s still a special place in Green’s heart for Japan’s citizens.
“I love the Japanese people,” he said. “Just this past month, I sent $300 worth of candy for the celebration of the tsunami. I do love all the children in Japan.”
Green’s story intrigued the Chatterton students. The military man even wrote notes and gave autographs to students who approached him afterward.
“I enjoyed the whole story,” eighth-grader Robert Boldt said. “I like learning about history, especially learning about World War II and what happened.”
Green’s story has been told in several books, including the 2012 book “Portraits of Service” by Robert Miller and Andrew Wakeford.
Other schools participated in Veterans Day tributes last Monday. Wolfe Middle School teacher Larry Trombley and Crothers Elementary fifth-grade teacher Jeff Herrell planned to bring their students to Veterans Park for a ceremony.
Macomb Community College staff and students gathered at Center Campus in Clinton Township and Warren’s South Campus to honor veterans. Several guest speakers addressed the crowd at South Campus, including U.S. Army Maj. Ryan O’Quinn, who has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We owe so much to our veterans. It is a debt we can never truly repay,” O’Quinn said. “America rose to greatness on their shoulders. The very least we can do is thank them for all they have done for this country. God bless our veterans and God bless America.”
During his speech, the ground combat vehicle program integrator recited a few words from the American flag’s point of view, which he borrowed from the American Veterans Memorial website.
“I stand for freedom. I have been to every battle since 1776,” O’Quinn said. “I can fly atop the greatest buildings in the world. I have been burned, torn and trampled in countries I have set free.”
O’Quinn is married to his wife Coty (Butler), and they have three children: Cameron, Lauren and Collin.