Imagine learning that your father died while serving his country. Then imagine living for decades with only scant details about his death and character.
“My mother never used the word died, but always told us our dad was lost in the war. She did not allow the family to have a memorial service. My brother and I had a mother, yet we were referred to as war orphans and gold star children,” Betty Rogers Bryant of Commerce, Texas reflected.
Bryant’s father, Lt. Col. Bill Rogers, died during World War II. A graduate of Texas A&M University, forty-one-year old Rogers was working as a high school teacher in Del Rio, Texas, when he received the call to active duty in 1941. He was a 368th Infantry Division reserve officer.
Bryant’s personal well of memories of her father is shallow. She was only four years old when he went to war. She spent much of her life wondering who her father was, whether he died a hero or a depraved man.
Then a miracle happened. More than forty years later in 1987, Bryant saw an article in The Dallas Morning News about veteran Morris Shoss.
“Morris Shoss escaped from a Japanese Hellship on the same day my dad died on a hellship. I obtained his phone number from the writer. When I called him, he said, ‘Your dad was my commanding officer,’ and I just couldn’t believe it,” Bryant relayed.
Morris sent her a list of survivors and contacted them on her behalf. Through these veterans, Bryant discovered the truth.
“I met 25 of these survivors and learned all about my dad’s command. They had the highest respect for him,” Bryant said.
Lt. Col. Rogers was training Filipino soldiers at Cebu, Philippines on May 15, 1942, when the Japanese forced him to surrender the island. Imprisoned at Davao Penal Colony with survivors from the Bataan Death March, Rogers was a prisoner of war for two and a half years. His leadership continued as the senior officer in charge of 750 fellow prisoners. Against the Geneva Convention, the Japanese forced them to build an air strip.
“He continually interceded with cruel Japanese authorities to alleviate his men’s suffering at the risk of his own life,” Bryant learned.
In September 1944, the Japanese transferred the men to a Hell ship, a freighter called the Shinyo Maru. Vessels transporting prisoners were called Hell ships.
“The terrible conditions in the bottom of this ship were unbearable. Men were dying and going crazy. The Japanese closed the hatch covers over the hold and the men were suffocating. There were only a few port holes and the men took turns trying to get air. Dad gave up his turn for his men in worse shape,” described Bryant, noting that her father demanded, even begged the Japanese remove the hatch covers.
Rogers asked a fellow prisoner and seminary student, John Morrett, to hold a service for the men.
Then an American submarine, the USS Paddle, torpedoed the Hell ship.
“They had no idea Americans were aboard and thought they were only torpedoing a Japanese freighter. Eighty-two of the 750 survived and swam to shore. The Filipinos hid them until the USS Narwhal rescued them,” Bryant detailed.
Rogers died, but those who survived, such as Morrett and Shoss, heralded his courage.
“Locating these men opened up a whole new world for me. They described him as a strong leader and a strong Christian. I think his military training at A&M and strong faith carried him through and made him a successful leader.”
“Finding out about my dad has been so rewarding and brought peace and closure for us. Documenting his supreme sacrifice is comforting to us and all our family,” Bryant said, noting that John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” describes her dad and his men.
Bryant annually honors her father through Texas A&M University’s Veterans Day events. Rogers reads the poem “Freedom Is Not Free” at the opening ceremony, where a vigil candle is lit and not extinguished until the school’s football game two days later. Her father’s medals are on display. Patriotic music, a 21 gun salute, a moment of silence, the playing of taps and a military flyover complete the salute.
Veterans initially filled the void in Bryant’s heart, which now overflows with pride. Rogers’ story underscores the purpose of Veterans Day: “A celebration to honor America's veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”
Thank you, Lt. Col. Rogers, for your sacrifice. Thank you to all veterans who have lived loudly for liberty.
Jane Hampton Cook, janecook.com, is the author of Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War, a 365-day digest with personal writings from about 20 key players in the Revolutionary War. She is a former webmaster to President George W. Bush. Ms. Cook resides in Vienna, Va.