BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. -- The young airmen endured malaria, hunger, beatings and torture, the brutal Bataan Death March and Japanese prison camps. Forty-two years later, they have been honored by their government.
The 18 men, members of the 27th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps, were awarded the Bronze Star Medal Thursday. The medals were presented at the same air base where their unit was organized in 1940.
The 27th was shipped to the Philippines in 1941, but their planes and equipment were diverted to Australia, where the 1,400 stranded airmen later were shown how to fire rifles and were transformed into an infantry unit.
They became known as the 'Battling Bastards of Bataan' when they and other troops held back Japanese forces until April 1942, giving the United States valuable time to begin recovering from the devastation of Pearl Harbor.
About 300 of the 27th Bombardment Group airmen, forced to surrender and held in POW camps for 3 years, were alive when the war ended in 1945.
'I'm an American, I'm proud to be an American and as far as I'm concerned, that's all there is to be,' said Hoyt R. Haynie of El Dorado, Ark., who survived the 55-mile march to a Japanese prison camp, but saw many of his friends die.
'I never gave up,' he said. 'If we ever gave up, I believed it would have killed us. I did have hope of coming back, even though we were beat and starved and sick. We always had hope.
'One of my friends who was in a lot better shape than I was said one night, 'I can't make it anymore. I'm just licked.' The next morning I reached to wake him up and he was just cold. He had died.'
Haynie's brother was wounded in Europe. His mother, Pearl, was at the ceremony with her son Thursday.
'I was working at a department store, and I would work all day and cry all night,' she said. 'This means so much to me.'
Many of the men said they did not mind that it had taken 42 years for their sacrifices to be noticed.
'I saw the American flag flying out there today, and it liked to brought tears to my eyes,' said Talmadge Wallace of Longview, Texas. 'To me, the heroes are still over there -- the ones that never came back. They're the ones that should be getting the glory.'