EAST RICHLAND -- "I really can't take credit myself," Sherwood "Sam" Yocum, a World War II veteran and prisoner of war, modestly recounts. "I happened to be part of it, but the real heroes are still over there."
Yocum is a spunky 90 year old resident at Cumberland Pointe Health and Rehabilitation now, but in March 1943 he trained in a field artillery unit then enlisted in the United States Air Force. He wanted to be a pilot, but before he could complete that training in San Antonio the Germans downed 200 planes, and he was one of 2,000 soldiers shipped out immediately to replace those troops. After preparations in the Azores Islands, North Africa and Italy Yocum became a ball turret gunner for his crew of 10 with targets in Czechoslovakia.
Returning after the mission, fighter planes attacked over Austria. Yocum's plane was hit, and gasoline spread all over the turret, catching fire. He and the pilot jumped. The plane exploded.
Sherwood “Sam” Yocum, a Staff Sergeant in World War II, holds a photo of his crew and their B24 Liberator. His and other veterans’ stories are included in “Marshall County Patriots and Heroes, Volume 4” by local author Gary Rider.
"As I was burying my 'chute, a guy came up behind me holding a pistol," Yocum remembers. "He was nervous, but that was it. He caught me. As we walked to the village I saw my pilot carrying his parachute. They got him, too."
His journey as a POW began in a village schoolhouse. They were put on a train to Vienna where they de-boarded and walked along the Danube River. On the way nuns from a local convent fed the soldiers barley soup, and the group moved on to Frankfurt, then to Stalag 4, a prison camp in Poland where he met Americans, Brits and Canadians. Later they would march the prisoners from there to Hamburg to Stalag 1 on the Baltic Sea.
Yocum talks about one parcel from the Red Cross having to last two weeks for two people. Each prisoner was given one blanket, and they slept in the snow, three men having to huddle together to combine their blankets. He brushed his teeth with Baltic Sea sand.
Yocum's full story is included in volume four of "Marshall County Patriots and Heroes" honoring men and women who have served in the military. Author Gary Rider, a retired John Marshall High School teacher, says the book project began years ago as an assignment in his Social Studies classes. In "America Goes to War," Rider directed students to write essays on family members who were veterans.
"The students came in with these extraordinary stories," he notes. "They found it eye opening."
He joked with students about their seeing the stories in a future book, but began pursuing publication when he realized that veterans from World War II and the Korean War were passing away daily, and their eye witness accounts would never be heard. Rider adds that finally telling their stories, even if only once for the books, has been cathartic to many of them in releasing some of the emotions and pain that they've carried since their tours of duty. With volume four of the series, Rider will have published stories from 500 veterans.
"As we continue this project we've been getting a sense of their feeling that they've had a good life since," says Rider. "And it makes them feel better. The telling cleanses their souls, and we let them know that we care about what they did for us."
Wendy Swisk , activities director at Cumberland Pointe, agrees. Since Yocum's story is included, she has organized a book signing for Rider and "Marshall County Patriots and Heroes, Volume 4" on Tuesday, Nov. 12 at 10:30 a.m. at Cumberland Pointe. Afterwards, veterans from American Legion Post 366 in Flushing will do a Veterans Day presentation. Both events are free and open to the public.
"We need to listen to these people. It makes you appreciate what you have," adds Swisk.
Yocum says that he and other soldiers have tried to forget much of what happened during the wars-two of his crew members did not return. He learned, however, that, with the exception of the German Gestapo trained in severe techniques, many of his captors "were not mean" but were just regular people.
A good memory Yocum carries of his war experience is that of arriving home by ship in Brooklyn, passing the Statue of Liberty and, as Yocum was released from service, seeing his brother (a soldier in the Pacific) working there in the stock room at Camp Shanks. Officers gave his brother a 15-day furlough to spend with Yocum.
Cumberland Pointe Health and Rehabilitation is located at 68637 Bannock Rd. (State Rt. 331) just north of Interstate 70. For more information on the book signing and Veterans Day program call (740) 695-2500.
Valenti can be reached at email@example.com.