FOURTH OF JULY: POW chaplain redeemed his agonies

Baptist Press
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Posted: Jul 01, 2011 6:22 PM
FOURTH OF JULY: POW chaplain redeemed his agonies
LONGVIEW, Texas (BP)--After World War II, Chaplain Maj. Gen. Robert Preston Taylor, a legendary American hero, often remembered the Fourth of July of 1943.

That summer, the Southern Baptist chaplain was in the Cabanatuan Prisoner of War Camp in the Philippines, a prisoner of the Japanese. It was an Independence Day and a summer he would never forget.

The Japanese prison guards had placed him in a so-called "heat box" to punish him for attempting to have medicine smuggled into the camp to save American lives. He and several other prisoners languished in the boxes, often without food or water, where the temperature reached 110 degrees as the sun beamed through the split bamboo walls.

There in the prison camp, Chaplain Taylor must have remembered the joy and excitement of the Fourth of July celebrations with his family back in Henderson, Texas. He could almost hear the high school band leading the parade playing patriotic music and see the mounted sheriff's posse on their beautiful horses as they rode down the street. He no doubt could imagine the flags waving and Mom and Dad Taylor and the family on a picnic celebrating the special day of independence.

One day during the summer of '43 when the guards allowed him to go to the exercise yard, he was so weak he walked with a cane. He gathered a group of prisoners around him and said, "Ask me about my condition. I'm dirty, nasty, and all I have on is my underwear. Can you smell the stench of my rotting teeth? Listen to me, listen without pity, I'm not going to die. I'm going to live and you are too, because God is going to give us strength."

When the war ended, Chaplain Taylor returned to Cabanatuan to pay his last respects to all his friends who died there. As he entered the compound, two Filipino guards stood at attention and briskly saluted. Weeds had grown up around the parade ground and the solitary cells had been torn down. He was deeply moved as he saw the American flag as it waved in the Philippine wind.

Chaplain Taylor had spent a total of 42 months in prison camps in the Philippines, Korea, Japan and Manchuria, all during that time faithfully ministering hope and peace to the men in the camps.

When he returned home, Chaplain Taylor faced another great crisis. He learned that his wife Ione -- who thought him dead for three years -- had remarried. He later told me that when he heard the sad news he thought God had deserted him. But, in time, he realized God had been with him all through the years of imprisonment and would always be with him.

He also faced an important decision -- whether to continue his ministry as a chaplain. He indeed chose the chaplaincy, ministering to troops throughout the land for another 20 years.

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named him Deputy Air Force Chief of Chaplains with the rank of Brigadier General. Four years later, President John F. Kennedy named him Air Force Chief of Chaplains with the rank of major general.

A number of personal friends and Air Force officials attended the Pentagon ceremony and saw his wife, Millie, the former Millie Good, whom he had married several years earlier, pin the Major General stars on her husband's shoulders.

Of that event, Chaplain Taylor later told me, "I just wanted to get it over with so I could get on with my job of helping all those men in uniform to whom I felt a strong sense of commitment."

Chaplain Taylor often was the featured speaker for Fourth of July celebrations, often remembering the summer of 1943 and how important freedom is to Americans everywhere. He was a patriot who respected the flag and was proud of the United States and of all the men and women in the military.

A man of great humility, the general once told me, "We don't want to be bitter toward the Japanese. It was a great tragedy for that nation to undergo such trauma, just as it was for the prisoners of war in their camps.

"I learned to forgive them a long time ago."

Bill Keith of Longview, Texas, is the author of 24 non-fiction and fiction books, including a biography of Chaplain Maj. Gen. Robert Preston Taylor, "Days of Anguish, Days of Hope," which has been released in a paperback edition available through Amazon.com and www.stonegatebooks.com. Among Keith's other books: "W.A. Criswell: The Authorized Biography; the story of a courageous and uncompromising Christian leader." Keith is a former war correspondent in Vietnam, Southern Baptist missionary to Japan and director of public relations for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

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