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Ohio ceremony marks National Former Prisoners of War Recognition Day

David Baker, 69, with the Mechanicsburg American Legion Post Honor Guard, practices before a ceremony Friday in honor of National Former Prisoners of War Recognition Day at Walnut Crossing Assisted Living Community in Marysville.

COURTNEY HERGESHEIMER/COLUMBUS DISPATCH

By HOLLY ZACHARIAH | The Columbus Dispatch | Published: April 9, 2021

MARYSVILLE, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Fighting 20 mph winds that made staying steady a monumental chore, the 93-year-old World War II soldier and the 74-year-old sailor who served in Vietnam walked together to the lowered flags that honored comrades who had paid the price of war with their freedom.

Then Army veteran Joe Melish and Navy veteran Joel Denman together helped to raise the American flag and the POW/MIA flag to the top of the pole in front of Walnut Crossing Assisted Living Community.

The pair then turned and saluted as an American Legion honor guard fired a three-volley salute and a lone bugler played taps, all part of a solemn ceremony Friday in honor of National Former Prisoners of War Recognition Day.

It is a day set aside nationally to recognize those who were held captive, forced into separation from everyone and everything they loved, and tortured and mistreated at the hands of the enemy.

Melish, a sturdy man who joked that he hoped he wasn't so light that he would blow away when he stood to do his duty, spent 1968 in Vietnam and is a new resident at Walnut Crossing.

His son, John Melish, stood at the back of a crowd of about 30 and filmed his dad's flag-raising. He said he couldn't be more proud of his dad's time in the military. His father was asked to participate in the ceremony to honor the men he served with who had been prisoners of war.

"It just means a lot to all of us," he said.

President Ronald Reagan proclaimed National Former Prisoners of War Recognition Day in 1988, and April 9 was designated for the annual observance. The date was chosen because on this date in 1942, the largest number of U.S. forces were captured by Japanese troops and forced to walk up to 65 miles over up to six days to a prison camp in what became known as the Bataan Death March.

The presidential proclamation reads, in part: "On National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day, we honor the more than 500,000 American warriors captured while protecting our way of life. We pay tribute to these patriots for their unwavering and unrelenting spirit."

Aimee Doneyhue, executive director of Walnut Crossing, was a hospital corpsman third class in the Navy and served as ombudsman to the naval destroyer USS Thorn when it was deployed in the Persian Gulf. For her, both as a veteran and a nurse, days like this one are personal.

And this special day is a bit more obscure, with many not even knowing it exists, so with many veterans living and working at Walnut Crossing, she said it was important to honor it somehow.

"With everything going on in the world and a lot of sadness, people often forget how many have sacrificed for us before," Doneyhue said. "It is easy to focus on the here and now. But with this ceremony we wanted to bring to light and recognize all the POWs and the things they endured and had to overcome and then come home and bear that burden for the rest of their lives.”

Dave Merritt, a U.S. Air Force veteran and commander of the American Legion Donald Cannon Post 238 in Mechanicsburg in nearby Champaign County, read to the crowd the story of Art Violet.

Violet, from Catawba in nearby Clark County, enlisted in the Army in 1948. When deployed to Korea, he was assigned to the Headquarters Battery, 57th Field Artillery, 7th Infantry Division. He was captured Dec. 6, 1950, during the bloody battle for the Chosin Reservoir.

He remained in captivity almost three years, released in August 1953 after a truce agreement was reached.

The Mechanicsburg post has a wall inside that honors Violet and his service and sacrifice.

After Friday's ceremony, Merritt recalled the first time he met Violet when Merritt was just a teenager doing some work at a township cemetery. The older man suffered a flashback in a thunderstorm.

Merritt still got goosebumps and choked up as he recalled the story. "Some gave the ultimate sacrifice and paid with their lives," he said. "But that man lived the rest of his life in hell."

During the ceremony Friday, staff members of Walnut Crossing read the names of more than 80 former POWs from Union County.

L. Mark Hensley, a chaplain with Vitas Healthcare and a former Ohio National Guard chaplain, read a passage of scripture and told those assembled that even though they knew no faces to put with many of the names of the former prisoners of war, their sacrifice was just as meaningful.

"We owe a debt of gratitude for all those who serve that we know," he said, "and for all those who serve that we don't know."

hzachariah@dispatch.com

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Vietnam veteran Joe Melish, at the ceremony inn honor of National Former Prisoners of War Recognition Day, at Walnut Crossing Assisted Living Community, Friday, April 9, 2021.
COURTNEY HERGESHEIMER/COLUMBUS DISPATCH