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Paul Lankford: A Forgiving Captive

by Michael H. Thomson
August 31, 2003

Paul Lankford: A Forgiving Captive_Michael H. Thomson- War is everywhere these days. You can’t turn on TV or read a newspaper without being reminded of it. Liberia, Iraq, drug wars in Latin America, conflict in Chechnya, bombs blowing up in the financial district of Bombay, and on it goes, humans slaughtering each other for territory, ideology, religion, or profit. Take war and conflict out of our history books and the volumes would be much thinner, as would the Bible, The Koran, Ramayana-the story of Lord Rama, and other religious volumes found throughout this conflicted world we live in.

Bruce Springsteen in his popular anti-war song “War”, asks the question over and over, what is it good for? Of course Bruce answers his own question by replying, absolutely nothing! With the danger of being branded pro-war, which I’m not, and anti-war, which I’m not, I would differ with the theme of Bruce’s award winning song. The experience of war and conflict can bring about positive changes in the lives of men and women. No doubt, the same experiences can create negative change, but the positive doesn’t get written about very often. Sometimes the most important thing learned out of a war is how to forgive…

An eighteen year old Gadsden, Alabama boy named Paul Lankford did not have war on his mind when he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1939. He wanted to be an aircraft mechanic and the Army Air Corps was a good place to learn that trade. After spending some time in Hawaii, Paul arrived in Manila in The Philippines on November 20th 1941. Students of history know what happened just a few weeks after that. Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese on December 7th and Paul Lankford’s air group was bombed on December 8th. By Christmas Day they were ordered to withdraw to the Bataan Peninsula. From Christmas until their surrender on April 19th 1942, they were under constant assault by the Imperial forces of Japan.

In an article by Technical Sergeant Jeff Loftin for the PACAF News on Hickam AFB in Hawaii, Paul is quoted as saying, When the surrender came, that was I think one of the lowest feelings I’ve ever had…everyone was crying as we held up our white handkerchiefs to indicate to the enemy that we gave up. We were going over to be in their hands, not knowing what was going to be taking place. We were giving up our liberty, giving up our freedom and going into the unknown.

Several hundred Americans and several thousand Filipinos lost their lives on the infamous “Bataan Death March”. In another quote from PACAF News, Lankford says, The Japanese storm troopers had moved in and made our sick and lame buddies to get on the road there…the heavy trucks coming down from the north overran them. They were flattened out. It was kind of rubbery as you were walking along.

When the Americans and their Filipino allies arrived at the former Camp O’Donnell they saw stacks and stacks of dead bodies and witnessed the Japanese killing any of the native population who tried to help the captives in anyway. If there was ever a reason to hate one’s enemies this was it and Paul did.

Working as a slave laborer in different camps, Paul Lankford worked digging graves and burying bodies of fallen comrades. Eventually he left the Philippines in the hold of a ship bound for Korea. There was no room to lie down and the journey took a month as the ship avoided Allied torpedoes. Many more died along the way, their bodies literally rotting in the ship’s hold. More hatred and bitterness crept into in the heart of the young Paul Lankford.

After arriving in Korea, Paul and others were shipped by train to Mukden, Manchuria where they worked as slave laborers in a sawmill farm detail and tool manufacturing plant. According to Paul it was bitterly cold in Manchuria and their wardrobes were scarcely enough to provide sufficient warmth. Prisoners were beaten and tortured for the smallest infractions. Paul was put into solitary confinement for a month for stealing some onions. He had concealed the onions on a string in his trousers with the intention of getting them to some of his comrades in the “brig”. Unfortunately within sight of his objective, the onions fell out of his pants landing Paul in the brig himself. Total isolation, almost total darkness at times, psychologically devastating, but Paul survived. He knew that if he let the isolation get to him that he would go crazy or die. Prayer and a form of memory development saved him.

Paul relied upon his faith every day of his entire prisoner-of-war experience. He prayed constantly and knew others were praying for him. During the horrific time of being sensory deprived during isolation he withdrew into himself and developed some phenomenal memory techniques. While bunking together at Maxwell Air Force Base in 1972 Paul told me that during that period of isolation that he literally tried to recall every memory that he had ever had from the time he was an infant onward. He was surprisingly successful. He remembered faces, events, and even conversations. Years later at a family reunion he surprised many by recounting memories that most had forgotten. In his eighties, Paul Lankford is a living encyclopedia, recounting events and personalities with surprising accuracy. If you’ve lost track of a comrade, Paul is the one to call.

When the Russians liberated Paul and his comrades on August 20, 1945, nearly four years from the time of his capture, Paul weighed eighty pounds. Paul hated the Japanese when his ordeal began, but one day realized that the hate would eventually consume and destroy him. He thought about his experiences, spoke to others, told his story, and soon realized that many of the Japanese he had encountered in the camps were not too much different than him. All were victims of circumstance. They didn’t initiate the war, but became unwilling participants in a drama that like it or not, they had to bear for the duration. Through this realization Paul began the journey of learning to forgive. Paul Lankford has literally traveled the world telling his story, and according to him, each time he tells it his heart becomes lighter…

After the war Paul Lankford stayed in the Air Force retiring in 1968. That same year Paul was chosen to become Deputy Commandant of the Air National Guard Non-Commissioned Officers Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee. When the NCO Academy became part of the Air National Guard Professional Military Education Center , Paul became the first enlisted commandant of the NCO Academy. Lankford Hall on the sprawling campus at McGhee Tyson ANG Base is named in his honor. Paul graduated from San Francisco University and has taught high school and adult education in San Raphael. September 12-13, 2003, the Christian Association of Psychological Studies will host its regional conference in Knoxville, Tennessee. Paul Lankford will conduct a breakout session entitled, “Stories from the Field: Forgiveness during & after Captivity”. Paul just keeps telling the story!

(Original photo of Paul Lankford provided by Tom Larson and Carpenters Middle School, Maryville, Tennessee)

About the Author:
From 1971 until 1977, Mike was an instructor at the Air National Guard Non-Commissioned Officer's Academy in Knoxville, Tennesse where he was honored to serve with Paul Lankford, who was a significant influence on his life.

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