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Herndon Veteran Fought a Different War

Local veterans remember lives lost and battles fought Nov. 11.

In 1940, 21-year-old George Idlett joined the Army Air Corps set on becoming a pilot.

Instead he spent three and a half years balancing a diet of rice and earthworms, drinking water out of ditches to keep from withering away.

"I’m getting down to be a minority," said the local veteran who will be honored Nov. 11 along will millions of others for Veterans Day.

At 85-years old, the Herndon resident has seen more than other veterans his age.

"The story of my war is totally different than other people’s I guess," he said.

In an excerpt from a 1958 article he wrote after returning from World War II, Idlett describes what it was like to be one of the 12,000 U.S. soldiers taken hostage by the Japanese and forced to trek 90 miles in the famous Bataan Death March.

"I remember, sometimes I forget, but mostly I remember that long, long march of death from the ordeal of Bataan … only one of every four who started the long march from Bataan had journeyed this far. For the others a little mound of earth marked the end of their journey. Maybe they were the lucky ones."

In a phone interview, Idlett explained that when he first joined the Army Air Corps after college he had dreams of being an aviator, but because of a failed depth perception test, he was a staff sergeant in supplied operations.

SIX WEEKS AFTER joining the Army Air Corps he was deployed to destination unknown for what he thought would be a two-year period.

"It was the first time since World War I that an entire squadron had been sent overseas without a destination," he said. "Within six-weeks of joining the Army I was on my way to the Philippines."

Idlett said there was no way they could have known their deployment would turn out like it did.

"We spent six years overseas fighting with no leave, just hard work," he said. "At the time I convinced myself it was a nice adventure, we thought it’d be two years and we’d go home — that’s what we were told — but it didn’t happen."

Of the six years Idlett spent overseas, more than half were spent in prison camps where he watched those around him die from malaria, malnutrition and other prison-born diseases — all of which Idlett suffered and survived.

"On April 9 we surrendered, and then began the death march," he said, recalling that 12,000 American troops and 80,000 Filipino troops were captured. "For nine days we walked with no food or no water — it is impossible to survive without water for that long — so we drank from ditches or other water sources along the way."

In his article Idlett explains how days monotonously passed in the camps as the soldiers worked under Japanese supervision with no hope of rescue.

"Aug. 15 [1945] is the day I would have been executed, I had my grave already dug," said Idlett. "I have a photograph of my grave."

"IT’S A LOT more real to my generation," said Town Council member Dennis Husch of the importance of Veterans Day, "we understand the sacrifices that were made not only by those who served but by those who stayed home to work."

Husch, who toured Vietnam with the U.S. Army in 1968-69, said he thinks Veterans Day may have more of an impact on certain people this year because of the current situation in the Middle East.

"Iraq is another country and another world," he said. "Unless [people] have a family member currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan it’s not the same impact."

Husch said although a charter member of the American Legion Post 184, he is not active with veteran affairs because of time constraints — but still finds it important to celebrate and remember those who served.

"They sacrificed time out of their lives to give something greater than themselves," he said.

Harlon Reece, Town Council member, said Veterans Day is also a time to remember America's freedom.

"To me, it's just one of those special times to remember the freedom we enjoy that we quite naturally take advantage of," said the Marine Corps Vietnam and Korean War veteran. "We take freedom for granted because we have never known anything else."

While waiting in line last week to vote, Reece said he began talking with another Vietnam veteran about the upcoming day of remembrance.

Reece said the two, although not bitter, are happy to see today's veterans receiving positive support from the public — opposed to the negative response they received after fighting in Vietnam.

"When you're in a time where veterans are once again at war I think it brings [the remembrance] closer to everyone," he said. "What I tend to remember from my experience at war — for Veterans Day I remember those lost, I really don't focus that much on the negative aspects."

Reece said he thinks this year's Veterans Day celebration may impact Americans more because of the situation abroad, although for him it is always a day of reflection.

"I have five uncles who served in World War II, this provides an occasion to remember them with fondness," he said, adding he is grateful on behalf of all veterans for the town's remembrance ceremony.

"THE WORLD WAR I surrender was signed in the 11th month on the 11th day in the 11th hour of the day," said Idlett of the reasoning for Veterans Day to be Nov. 11.

He said although the surrender of World War II was not Nov. 11, they chose to recognize the two major wars on that day while encompassing all other wars and veterans to come.

"When you say dates to me, I have my own personal dates that I remember," he said. "My experiences are different than the rest, I didn't have the same war as other people had."

Idlett explained that although his war experiences had a different outcome than others', it is important for the country to remember those who served and those currently serving.

"Nov. 11, it, of course, is a meaningful day to all of America," said Idlett, "it's the day that is universally remembered."