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'Great Escape' survivors gather at Air Force Academy for POW reunion

In this Air Force file photo from Aug. 20, 2010, Jim Armature and James King look at a Stalag Luft III display outside the Gimbel room in the Air Force Academy's McDermott Library Aug. The men were part of a group of about 60 people with the Royal Order of Jesters who visited the Academy.

Seven decades haven't severed bonds built in captivity.

Veterans who survived Germany's Stalag Luft III say the connections built in the prison camp have expanded over that time, encompassing children, wives and grandkids. Seventeen survivors of the camp — all in their 90s — were in Colorado Springs, Colo., this week along with more than 100 family members and supporters to revisit a time of pain, valor, camaraderie and tenacity.

"We're all friends," said Royal Air Force veteran Jim Stewart of New Brunswick, Canada. "We shared an experience."

The veterans and their supporters were drawn to Colorado Springs to see their past on display at the Air Force Academy, which has one of the planet's largest collections of World War II prisoner-of-war material, including a massive collection focused on Stalag Luft III, which held more than 10,000 allied airmen.

The German camp near Czechoslovakia earned a place in American popular culture through "The Great Escape," a movie detailing a 1944 escape of British prisoners in a failed attempt at freedom.

Don Shearer, a former B-26 gunner from West Virginia, was shot down July 5, 1944, and hid from German troops for two weeks before he was taken prisoner.

He recalled how prisoners disposed of dirt from escape tunnels at the camp.

"We had socks of dirt in our pockets," he said, detailing how prisoners slowly let dirt sift down through their pant legs to hide the traces of their efforts.

The escape schemes of the prisoners are well-documented in the Air Force Academy's collection.

Prisoners kept secret maps, made disguises and forged German paperwork.

One of the items on display at the academy is a handmade compass built in the camp by Lorrie Bennett's late husband Jack.

"He was a scrounger," she said of the man she married three weeks before he shipped off to fly B-17 bombers over Europe.

She remembers learning that her husband was missing after a mission over France in 1942.

"You are seesawed between hope and despair," she recalled. "That's just the way it is."

Like other families of prisoners, Bennett learned of Jack's capture through a Red Cross letter.

"It was a year before I got a letter," she said.

Hundreds of letters from prisoners and their families are in the academy's collection. Other items include hundreds of photographs, including images captured by inmates with clandestine cameras that show life in the camp.

The academy came to possess the treasure trove through the work of former superintendent Lt. Gen. A.P. Clark, who died in 2010.

Clark, one of the first American POWs at the camp, was in charge of gathering supplies for the Great Escape. After the war, he wrote a book about his experience and gathered scrapbooks full of records and other items that formed the core of the academy collection. It has grown as other prisoners have donated their memorabilia.

For the former prisoners, the artifacts made hazy memories fresh.

"I wish I could stay here all day," said Edward Dement, a former B-24 nose gunner who was shot down in 1944.

For family members, the collection gave a glimpse of a history they've never seen.

Jim Blackstone of Tennessee spotted a cartoon his father, James Blackstone, penned while he was a prisoner. The elder Blackstone didn't tell his children much about his war experiences. He died in 1976, before they could pry the biggest stories out of him.

But in that cartoon, the younger Blackstone saw how his father approached captivity with humor and aplomb.

"He died too young," Blackstone said. "He died right about the time he was starting to talk."

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