Oklahoma family donates treasured flag
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Patty Kelly Stevens watched as Japanese troops shouted in anger and tore apart her prison camp barracks in the Philippines near the end of World War II, looking for something she knew her mother was hiding.
“Don’t worry, they’ve been in there three times and they haven’t returned with it yet,” Selma Croft said softly to her daughter.
It doesn’t take much of an imagination to figure out what might have happened if the Japanese had found what they were looking for.
“I think they would have killed us,” Stevens told The Oklahoman , without hesitation.
Selma Croft never told her daughter where she hid the 10-foot American flag, but Stevens figures it was probably inside a mattress.
Later this month, Stevens will present that flag, part of her family for almost a century, to the U.S. Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum at Fort Bragg.
The 48-star flag came into the family after Stevens’ grandfather saved it from a fire at a Philippines carnival. Over the decades, the banner adorned the caskets of family members who were military veterans, including that of her first husband. She considered passing the flag along to her son, but wondered what would happen after he died. Would her grandchildren have the same attachment to the flag? Would their grandchildren? In the end, the decision didn’t come easily.
“We got to talking about it and they said wait until after you die, but I can’t have it on my casket because I wasn’t in the military,” Stevens said earlier this month while sitting in the living room of her Nichols Hills home. “We decided to give it to Fort Bragg. I know it will be safe there and appreciated.”
The word appreciation resonates with Stevens and her son, Paul Kelly Jr. As anthem protests broke out this year at NFL games, Kelly noticed. And knowing what his mother and grandmother went through to preserve a symbol of freedom during the war, it didn’t sit well.
“With so much disrespect shown to the flag these days, it’s sort of rewarding to see a situation where people were literally willing to risk their lives to keep that flag,” he said.
Born in Honolulu. Stevens was raised in the Philippines, where her English father, Alfred Croft, worked for the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. The family lived in a large home with staff. Her mother, a Red Cross nurse who met her father not long after World War I, took care of the home as well.
“It didn’t seem like we had any worries,” she recalled. “I went to school a half a day. The other half, we worked on our homework. We’d go swimming. It was outdoor living.”
And then all hell broke loose. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and soon had the Philippines in their sights.
“My mother got a call at 5:30 in the morning from a reporter at the Manila Star who said war had been declared,” Stevens remembered. “My younger brother and I had to go on to school, but by noon, were sent back home because they had started attacking.”
Five days later, she found herself face to face with the Empire of Japan when a truck packed with troops showed up at their home.
“The soldiers came to the door with bayonets and said pack enough food and clothing for three days and then you’ll get back home,” Stevens said. “Those three days turned out to be three years and two months.”
Among the items her mother grabbed was the precious heirloom flag.
Working in Hawaii, Alfred was cut off from his wife and children. They wouldn’t reunite until 1945.
Stevens, her mother, and younger brother, William, first were taken to the University of Santo Tomas, in Manila. Established in 1611, it was known as one of the largest, oldest and most prestigious universities in Asia. But it didn’t make much of a POW camp for the 6,000 people housed there.
It had no showers, few toilets and no beds. They slept on concrete floors and had no mosquito nets to combat one of the region’s biggest pests. Eventually, the Red Cross made things a little easier, providing bedding and nets. Some men fashioned showers and toilets. For a teenager, the situation was chaotic and strange.
“It was rough to begin with,” Stevens said.
For two years the family stayed at the university. They filled the time with talk. Stevens learned to play the accordion. Sometimes the prisoners would put on shows for each other. It was far from ideal, but could have been worse, she said. She’d heard stories of mass executions and torture, after all.
In time, the Japanese moved Stevens’ brother to Los Banos, a prison camp under construction outside of Manila. Family members wouldn’t see him again until a year later when Stevens and her mother were moved to the same camp. Things got worse from there.
The Japanese had told them they would continue to be fed well as long as the Japanese were winning the war. They no longer were. The camp’s construction, away from Manila, showed there were fears the Americans would retake the city.
During the move from Santo Tomas to Los Banos, the Japanese pulled aside three of the prisoner’s established leaders, told them to dig their own graves and then beheaded them. Stevens didn’t witness the killings, but said she saw plenty of torture.
By the end of their captivity, prisoners at Los Banos were living on 700 calories a day.
“The camp was in a beautiful place, but we were so hungry,” she said.
Her mom, presented with wild pumpkins and a couple eggs, managed to cobble together a pie one Thanksgiving. With no lard available, her mother used cold cream from their Red Cross kits.
“I didn’t think it would be edible but it was pretty good,” Stevens said.
To this day, Stevens can’t stand to see people waste or not appreciate food.
“I hear so many people complaining about their food all the time and I think, ‘Gee, you’re darn lucky to have this,’” she said.
One January 1945 morning, Stevens and the rest of the POWs woke to find their guards gone. Might this be the end of the war? Men went to a nearby village to scrounge for food. Others raided the guards’ abandoned supply. Before long, they grew even bolder.
“They asked if anyone had an American or British flag,” Stevens said. “My mother came forward. We raised that flag and sang the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’”
Seeing the flag unfolded and then flying over the camp while the anthem played was thrilling, emotional and extremely dangerous. After a few moments, the prisoners took The flag down and hid it again. Good idea.
Within days, the guards returned, having been called away to help repel American forces in Manila. They weren’t happy with what they found.
“We had already gotten into their food and we started eating it like we were in a palace,” Stevens said. “They were very upset with us. That’s when they cut down on our food rations. The commandant said we would be eating dirt before he was through with us.”
Their suffering soon would end.
February 23, 1945, began like any other day at Los Banos.
“We had to get out in front of our barracks and stand there for roll call and bow to the Japanese,” Stevens said. “My mother and I were on our way down to stand in line when all of a sudden, I heard all these shots being fired.”
Stevens looked up and saw parachutes. What she first thought were supplies, turned out to be paratroopers. In the chaos, Stevens’ mother grabbed her two children, ran to their barracks and hid under the beds.
The Los Banos Raid is one of the most successful and most studied airborne rescue operations in U.S. military history. Caught while they were doing their morning exercises, the Japanese garrison of about 250 men was quickly overrun. That suited Stevens just fine.
“My God, I despised them,” Stevens said. “The commandant fled, but they got him later.”
As the three hid, they heard footsteps getting closer.
“I crawled out from under the bed and here was this gorgeous paratrooper,” Stevens said.
Then, she unintentionally insulted one of her rescuers.
“I said, ‘You’re a Marine,’ and then he said, ‘Hell no, I’m not a Marine. I’m 11th Airborne.’”
With thousands of Japanese troops still in the vicinity, there was little time for tears or relief. Ushered into halftracks, they headed toward American lines. The raid rescued more than 2,100 prisoners and left nearly 100 Japanese soldiers dead.
As Stevens thinks now about that time, she knows she’s lucky. Her mother weighed just 80 pounds when rescued. Being malnourished for so long, Patty’s own health was threatened. There was evidence their outcome could have been far worse. Not long before their rescue, a construction project began at the camp. Its purpose was a mystery.
“We saw the ditches,” Stevens said. “They told us they were going to put a building up. But we knew they weren’t doing that with Manila on fire. They were going to put our bodies in there and burn them.”
Following their rescue, the POWs were taken to another prison, where doors were left open. The family stayed there for two months before making their way back to the U.S. But not before Stevens met her future husband, Paul Kelly Sr., who had participated in the operation to capture the University of Santo Tomas as a member of the Army’s 1st Cavalry.
“The outfit he was part of had been sent down to a rest camp near ours and they heard there were teenage girls so they brought food over and we had a little party,” she said.
It wasn’t quite love at first sight, but there was something there.
“When he asked me to marry him, I told him I had to wait because I had already been locked up for a while,” Stevens joked.
They were married for 25 years before his death in 1971.
Stevens, her mother, and younger brother made their way back to the U.S. on a troop ship. As they sailed they were interviewed by the FBI. They still had the flag, so carefully hidden all those years, but they had no passports, birth certificates or any other documents to prove they were American citizens. She’d traveled to the U.S. on trips before, but in many ways, it was a foreign country.
“It was quite an adjustment because you’re not aware of all that has gone on,” she said. “Someone put a little radio together and we’d get some news but when you’re not aware of what’s going on for three years, it’s so hard. People would look at me so funny.”
Stevens still marks February 23 every year. Liberation Day. The day she got a second shot at life.
“If I want ice cream and cake, I have it,” she said. “It’s just a big day.”
Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com