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SALT LAKE CITY — Sixty-three Utahns who understand war, as they survived battles and captivity as prisoners, were honored Friday.
Six months as a World War II prisoner of war truly tested Richard Burt. "If you got sick, you either got well or died. There was nobody to help you," he said.
Burt was a 19-year-old gunner on a B-24 in the fall of 1944. On only his third mission, he was shot down over Yugoslavia. The crew bailed out with parachutes at 15,000 to 18,000 feet.
"I prayed that thing would open, and it did," Burt recalled. "That was probably my scariest time."
The crew scattered when they hit the ground, so he was left to fend for himself. He hid in a pile of leaves the first night, then got up and started to walk. It wasn't long before he was captured by the Nazis.
"I didn't have a clue where I was, or what was going to happen to me at that point. I was just a scared kid," he said.
He was held in Poland at Stalag Luft 4 for three months. He was captive along with 10,000 other Army Airmen.
As Russian troops moved in on Poland from the east, the Germans decided to move their prisoners. They forced Burt and his comrades to march into Germany across the Elbe River.
"I'll never forget that day," he said. "It was snowing, it was cold."
As friendly British troops moved in from the west, and the end of the war neared, the Nazis herded them northward to Zarrentin. By the end of the march, they'd covered a total of 550 miles over 86 days.
Joined by his wife Evelyn, Burt was honored Friday along with the 62 other surviving Utah POWs. Fifty of them are World War II veterans, six served in Korea and seven in Vietnam.
April 9 is the date exhausted U.S. troops in the Philippines surrendered to the Japanese in World War II. They were forced on the infamous Bataan Death March. In that tortuous trek, 600 to 650 American troops died or were killed by their captors.
Burt knows he was fortunate to come home from Europe. "My feet were frostbitten. We were wet all the time. We were never in a warm place from the day we left the camp until it became spring."
When the British troops liberated those POWs, Burt says they cheered and cheered, and then drank milk until they were sick. "My health was so bad. I went in at 145 pounds. I came out at 90 pounds."
It was 40 years before he could talk about any of this. But, he says, then he realized we all need to know what they endured and of the sacrifices of so many young men for our freedom.