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Don’t forget to talk to your local veterans

A century from now, how many Americans will even know about the Bataan Death March? Will those who read about it believe anyone could be so cruel to other human beings? Will the skeptical conclude the accounts are myths, horror stories that could never have happened?

Ed Jackfert knew better. He was there. He told us what he and thousands of other Americans and Filipinos had endured after they surrendered to the Japanese in 1941 and early 1942.

Now he is gone. Jackfert passed away July 24 in Tampa, Florida.

He was 98, and he wanted to be interred at home, in the Franklin Cemetery at Wellsburg, West Virginia. He had many friends — and even more admirers.

Jackfert wanted people to know what happened to him and so many others who served their country. He helped establish and expand the National American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor Museum, Education & Research Center in Wellsburg. It is said to be the largest repository of artifacts and personal accounts of what happened to the defenders of the Philippines at the start of World War II.

Read about it, if you can bear to learn about unmitigated evil. American soldiers were beheaded and run over by Japanese tanks because they could not keep up in the march. They were deprived of food and water until they collapsed on the road, to be shot or bayoneted. Many were sent on “hell ships” to Japan, to work as slave laborers until that country surrendered in 1945. Most emerged from captivity looking like human skeletons.

That is only a tiny part of what they endured. Jackfert could tell of other horrors, and did while he was alive.

But he is gone, now, like the vast majority of those who endured the death march and years of ensuing brutality. Within a few years, none of them will be left among us.

Who, then, will vouch for the stories in history books? Whose eyes will flash in anger at anyone arguing the accounts are exaggerated?

Who will point to a photograph of a Japanese officer with raised sword and tell us he knew the man about to be beheaded? Who will recall being so dehydrated on a “hell ship” that he drank his own urine? Who will look at the roster of Bataan and Corregidor soldiers and tell us how this one died or how another sacrificed to help comrades?

There will be no one to do those things and others that make the reality of what happened — at Bataan, in the Nazi death camps, in the frozen foxholes at Bastogne and the skies above Italy, even in home-front factories kept running by Rosie the Riveter — more real than any book or documentary film can achieve.

Readers need talk to people like Jackfert at every opportunity. Doing so makes them human beings, not type on the pages of a history book. Knowing what the man or woman a few feet away as we talked went through — watching their faces as they relive trials and tribulations we can’t imagine — makes us realize like no other experience that these things really happened.

Rest in peace, Mr. Jackfert. You and your comrades in arms really will be missed, more than most people seem to realize.

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