COLUMBIA, SC (WBTW) – One day after the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, South Carolina honored its prisoners of war from that conflict by presenting them with newly-created POW Medals. Gov. Nikki Haley and Adjutant General Bob Livingston presented the medals at the Statehouse Thursday to 12 former POWs, one former POW’s son, and seven POWs’ widows.
“They are heroes, not for the time that they served but for life,” Gov. Haley told the crowd in the Statehouse lobby.
State lawmakers created the new medals last year. They will eventually be given to all South Carolinians who have been designated by the Department of Defense as prisoners of war.
One of the former POWs was retired Col. Chester Hacket. He and his family moved to Spartanburg when he was a boy and he grew up there, and then went to Clemson. He was already a pilot when the U.S. entered the war, so he had more than 1,000 hours of flight time and signed up as a bomber pilot.
During training, he successfully landed a B-17 despite one of its landing gear wheel struts being broken. The Spartanburg Herald ran a story at the time calling him a hero. “I skidded on down the runway,” he said Thursday, at his home after the POW Medal ceremony. “The ball turret hit probably first and a big ball of fire, they said, went out behind me.”
Once he was stationed in England during the war, he switched to the B-24 bomber. Not long after D-Day, he and his crew were on a bombing mission over Poland. He had seen heavy anti-aircraft flak over the target, but his commanding officer wouldn’t let him change altitude. “We got over the target and as soon as I dropped my bombs we got hit,” he says.
The blast killed his co-pilot. Hacket ordered the rest of the crew to bail-out. He leveled the plane and walked back to the bomb bay to bail out when he saw his bombardier. The blast had destroyed the bombardier’s parachute. “So I said, ‘Well, let’s get back in.’ And he said, ‘No, I’ll take it down.’ And I said no. So I got back in and he did.”
Despite the plane having almost no power and leaking fuel, he was able to successfully land in a field. He and the bombardier were taken prisoner and sent to POW camps. The rest of his crew members who had bailed out also got captured.
He spent a year as a POW, most of it in Stalagluft III. “The Great Escape” had happened from there before they arrived. “There’s five compounds and we were in center, and I’ve forgotten which compound they dug those tunnels and the Great Escape thing they had, but they were right next to us,” he says.
As the Russian army got closer, the camp commander forced all the POWs to march farther inland, but they were eventually liberated by Gen. Patton’s troops, Hacket says.
He stayed in the military as a pilot into the 1960s, rising to the rank of colonel. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. He was nominated for the Silver Star but the paperwork for it got lost in the confusion of the ending of the war.
As for the new South Carolina POW Medal, he says, “It’s an honor. I said to the governor, ‘You’re mighty gracious with your busy schedule to do this.'”
The day of the medal ceremony was also his 96th birthday, so the entire crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to him. “I appreciated it a whole lot,” he said afterward.