A matter of honor

Published 1:09 pm Friday, July 2, 2010

After four years of cutting through red tape, Spencer Bumgardner saw his mission accomplished this past Friday, June 25.

Through the efforts of Bumgardner, who has retired back to his hometown of Landrum, his stepfather and World War II POW, T.J. Willard has his rightful place on a monument recognizing area POWs at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Asheville.

As soon as I saw that plaque I told (VA staffer) John Cowart that I wasnt going to rest until Daddys name was on that wall, said Bumgardner.

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Willards name was added to the plaque in a small ceremony attended by family members, including Bumgardner, son Jeff Willard, daughter Carolyn Terrell and great-grandson Logan Putnam. David Grant, a former U.S. Air Force aviator who had been shot down over North Vietnam and taken prisoner, also attended on the 38th anniversary of the day he was taken captive.

I was honored to have (Davis) there, Bumgardner said. Im sure that was a day of reflection for him.

But Willard, who died in the early 1970s, was not there to be honored.

I wish he had been around to see this, said Bumgardner of Willard. I wish hed been around to see his grandkids and great-grandkids.

Willard was part of some 70,000 U.S. Army and Filipino soldiers defending the Bataan Peninsula in April of 1942. Ill-supplied, malnourished and battered, the U.S. forces surrendered on April 9 and were forced on a brutal 60-mile trek inland to Camp ODonnell that became known as the Bataan Death March.

Thousands of soldiers died or were killed while being subjected to abject cruelty and torture by the Japanese forces. Others died in deplorable conditions in POW camps.

But Willard, who eventually ended up held in Manchuria alongside Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, survived and it was his participation in the Bataan Death March that led to his inclusion on the plaque.

Bumgardner had attempted unsuccessfully to verify Willards status as a POW, but was turned down by government representatives, despite having the telegram sent to Willards mother notifying her of Willards capture.

As soon as I mentioned that he was in the Bataan Death March, (his name) popped right up, Bumgardner said.

Despite no record of his time as a POW, Willard, a native of Green Creek, did gain mention in Wainwrights autobiography. He was the fellow-POW who notified Wainwright, a Medal of Honor recipient who had been forced to surrender following the fall of Corregidor soon after Bataan, that the war had ended and the Soviet Army had liberated Manchuria.

Bumgardners biological father died when Bumgardner was five years old and soon thereafter Willard became the youngsters stepfather.

I remember thinking that I finally had somebody to call daddy again, Bumgardner said. He was always good to me.

I just needed a father figure. He probably had more influence on my life than his own kids, just because I was older.

Bumgardner himself entered the U.S. Army shortly after his high school graduation in 1966 and served in Vietnam in 1966-67.

What I went through there is nothing compared to what (Willard) went through back then, Bumgardner said.

He taught me at a young age that you can survive and do anything as long as you never give up.