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Fifty Years Ago, Couple Became Family In POW Camp

March 13, 1995

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ In all the reminiscing about World War II, all the recollections of battles and atrocities and feats of bravery, there should be a place for Margaret Sams’ uncommon love story.

How she was thrown into prison. How she became involved with a married man. How they started a secret family.

The story begins in 1936, when she left her middle-class family in the small California town of Beaumont to marry Bob Sherk and move to the Philippines, where he was an engineer in the gold mines.

In December 1941 the Japanese attacked, transforming her overseas adventure into a nightmare. Her husband joined the Army, but Margaret and her 4-year-old son were taken prisoner by the Japanese.

Initially, they were incarcerated at the Santo Tomas prison camp in Manila, along with thousands of other American civilians.

There was little food or water. Many became sick. Some starved to death. Bed was a floor with no blankets. There were toilets but no showers. Everywhere, there were menacing guards and rules. A few prisoners were tortured and executed.

``I felt absolutely scared to death. ... I was sick a lot, my son was sick and it was sheer misery, as far as I was concerned. I don’t remember a thing to laugh about,″ said Margaret Sams.

``I concentrated on staying away from the guards. If I stayed away and behaved, I was reasonably safe,″ she said.

Margaret hadn’t smiled in months when she met Jerry Sams, an electronics engineer from Chicago who was married to a woman back in the States.

Sams was a slick operator in camp. He picked locks, took secret photographs, nurtured connections with the Filipinos for extra food, and built a radio receiver. Discovery would have meant execution.

He also lived in a tiny stairway landing, posh quarters by camp standards.

Margaret and Jerry spotted each other in a crowd at a baseball game. They were instantly attracted.

``I didn’t know how to meet her,″ Jerry said recently. ``I finally asked her what the score was. She just pointed to the scoreboard.″

Ouch, he thought.

But things went better the next time and soon they were in love. Faced with the possible starvation of herself and her child, Margaret decided to reject the rules of her traditional, middle-class upbringing. She and Jerry came together to help each other stay alive.

Times weren’t always grim. For Margaret’s 27th birthday, Jerry threw her an illegal surprise party, complete with music and dancing.

In May 1943, on the eve of Jerry’s transfer to another prison camp, they slept together. Months later, when she moved to the new Los Banos camp, Margaret was finally able to tell Jerry he was the father of a girl, Gerry Ann.

Temporary relationships in prison camps were common; a permanent one was not. Some of the fellow prisoners shunned Margaret. And Margaret herself inwardly struggled. She did not believe in divorce or adultery.

But the war had rearranged reality. Margaret, Jerry and the children had become a family. And a family, they would stay.

On Feb. 22, 1945, U.S. troops arrived at Los Banos and rescued the 2,122 surviving civilian prisoners.

``The paratroopers looked like Greek gods, or angels, floating down,″ Margaret recalls.

After liberation, Jerry and his wife agreed to divorce. Margaret learned her husband had been taken prisoner and had died.

Jerry and Margaret married in January 1946 and raised their children. He picked up his work in electronics; she was a homemaker.

Now they live in a huge house in Grass Valley, northeast of Sacramento. But they keep large stocks of supplies on hand _ a reaction, they say, to the scarcities they endured during the war.

Partially as an explanation of their lives to her children, Margaret wrote a book about their experiences. ``Forbidden Family″ was published in 1989 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

She is 79; he is 83. After five decades, they’re still a little embarrassed when they talk about prison and their forbidden romance. There’s also pride, sadness and bitterness when they look back at those days a half-century ago.

But there is no regret.

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