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SALT LAKE CITY — The Pledge of Allegiance was especially poignant when it was recited Friday by 11 former prisoners of war during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Former POWs were recognized with a luncheon and ceremony as part of National Former POW Recognition Day. The official recognition date is April 9 — the day in 1942 that United States forces surrendered and the Bataan Death March began.
Jack Gifford, a Utah resident of 50 years, was serving in the U.S. Army in North Korea when he was captured and imprisoned by the Chinese for 21 months until the end of the war.
"While I was crawling around on my hands and knees looking for a piece of equipment in the middle of the night, I was feeling around, and I feel this pinch — and it was Chinese," he said.
Gifford said he endured a lot of "mistreatment," often being bound in a way that would make him harm himself if he relaxed his muscles. He made it through two winters in Korea with no heat and was given only a gunny sack for a blanket.
To pass the time, he and a Hungarian who survived the Holocaust played bridge and chess, which Gifford said was a "really good" game because it took so long to play. They used to write each other every Christmas.
"You just get through from day to day, whatever's happening to you," Gifford said.
Five years ago, 80 former POWs in Utah were alive. That number has dwindled to 35. About a dozen died last year.
Their biographies reveal thriving lives of educational pursuits, happy families, military careers, long marriages and church service after surviving the Bataan Death March, Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Bulge, Omaha Beach and Utah Beach.
"The stories of their experience, their endurance, how they survived and the hope that demonstrates I think translates directly to all of us for what we can do in our lives to provide hope for one another, to keep striving, to keep supporting one another," said Steve Young, director of the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System.
The stories of their experience, their endurance, how they survived and the hope that demonstrates I think translates directly to all of us for what we can do in our lives to provide hope for one another, to keep striving, to keep supporting one another,
–Steve Young, director of the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System
During a "Missing Man" table presentation, the servicemen and women still missing in action were remembered. The wives of former POWs were honored and given a military challenge coin.
Dale Rigby, who served on the USS Pueblo, was captured and held prisoner for 11 months after the Navy intelligence ship was "completely overwhelmed" by North Korean forces in January 1968, he said.
To pass the time and cope with being imprisoned, Rigby and his fellow POWs tried to use humor and to laugh. Rigby said his wife, Julie, has been his anchor in all the years since, as well as his four children — two of whom served in the armed forces even after knowing the "worst-case scenario."
"I look at them, their spouses, my grandchildren, and I'm very blessed to have survived and to have served with good, honorable men," Rigby said. "I'm very proud of the job we were trying to do."
Rigby said he enjoyed having lunch Friday with his family and spending time with a "great group of fellows."
"It's nice to be amongst people who understand that the residue of our experience is like yesterday, and it's like a thousand years ago," he said, "that we can look at each other, rub shoulders and without having to say a word, know (and) understand."