On Memorial Day Mr. Flowers had another chance to share his faith at the ceremony where he received the Purple Heart. He hadn’t planned to speak but was guided to the podium. He could have said anything, goodness knows he has a story that the best Hollywood movies are made of. But that’s not what he shared. Mr. Flowers stood behind the microphone and talked about his faith in God. “I just want to thank Jesus Christ for saving me.” Tears filled my eyes again along with many others gathered at the Veteran’s War Museum that hot May day. In that short sentence the audience quickly learned how a country boy from Mississippi survived three in half years of pure hell. Recently, I sat down with Mr. Flowers at his home in the Powers community where once again he shared his amazing story as a prisoner of war. Although I’ve heard his story many times with my students at West Jones, I never tire of hearing it and always notice one common thread weaved throughout his story. Through all the degradations of war and prison life God’s hand of grace can be seen holding up Mr. Flowers in the most subtle ways.
Prior to the war Mr. Flowers admits that he was not a Christian. “I went to church but I didn’t really know Jesus.” It was during his imprisonment in the Philippines that Mr. Flowers would come to know Christ and the source of strength that had kept him alive to that point and would carry him through to the end of the war.
On the day after Pearl Harbor, December 8, 1941, the Philippine Islands, where Mr. Flowers was stationed, came under attack by the Japanese. “We woke up that morning and heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.” The soldiers at Clark Field scrambled to prepare for the onslaught of Japanese bombers. “They started bombing us around noon and kept on until about four. They destroyed most of our planes. I lost my two best buddies that day.” Mr. Flowers told harrowing ordeal of defusing Japanese bombs that didn’t explode. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I think I was there just to hold the Sergeant’s hand that was actually defusing the bombs.” Weeks later, the American and Pilipino troops, who had fought off the enemy so gallantly with little supplies or support, were forced to surrender to the Japanese. Thus began the Bataan Death March. During that seventy mile march Mr. Flowers was subjected to beatings and other degrading inhumane acts. At one point along the march they came upon a damaged bridge in need of repair. Mr. Flowers was chosen to help repair it. Upon not being able to lift a heavy beam, a Japanese soldier beat Mr. Flowers across the head with a metal bayonet scabbard. “He took that thing off and knocked me in the head, blood cushed out.” He bears the scars of that act to this day. Later Mr. Flowers was worked on a huge farm were food was grown to feed Japanese soldiers. “We grew some good crops but we didn’t get any of it just scraps of rice and sweet potato vines that tasted like turpentine.” He explained that the sweet potato vines had medicinal qualities and he was encouraged by American doctors to eat them.
While working on the farm, Mr. Flowers developed what some thought was a contagious disease and was quarantined in the prison hospital. It was at this time that a friend who cooked for Japanese soldiers began sneaking food to Mr. Flowers and soon he began to regain his strength. It was at this time that Mr. Flowers would first experience the saving grace of Jesus Christ. “Every morning I would help clean the mess kits after breakfast and each morning I saw this Catholic Chaplin coming down the road down and later he would return whistling, singing and happy as could be.” Mr. Flowers had to know why the priest returned so different, “Sir why do you come back so happy? I’d like to be that way.” The priest told Mr. Flowers that each day he went to a special place to pray. “I’ve been talking to Jesus; you’ve got to know Him to be this way.” At that point Mr. Flowers realized he needed Jesus and that day Christ came into his heart. “Everything changed. Things didn’t bother me anymore. Jesus was taking care of me.” He also understood that Christ was with him from the beginning of his ordeal. “My friends and family at Church each Sunday were lifting me up in prayer.” Even though the torture and brutality never stopped and in some cases got worse, Mr. Flowers was able to get through it better. “Nothing changed I still had to work I still didn’t get food but I changed.” Christ had changed his heart and his outlook on life. It was after His conversion that Mr. Flowers was able to see God’s grace working in his life. “They put us on a ship and took us to Japan.” Those ships were called “hell ships” by the soldiers who survived them. Packed in the dark hot hull of the ship were hundreds of soldiers without adequate food and water. “They lowered this giant barrel to use the bathroom in and I was sick. I had to use it one day and fell into the barrel and it was full.” Mr. Flowers saw Japanese soldiers from the deck lower a winch to bring him up on deck. “I figured they would kill me right there.” But that’s not what happened. The soldiers hosed him off and furnished him with clean cloths and he rode the rest of the trip to Japan on deck. Flowers gave credit to the grace of God for his rescue from the hell ship. “That was God; He was taking care of me.” After his arrival to Japan, Mr. Flowers was worked as a slave in the copper mines. Crews would blast the rocks then he and others would shovel the copper ore into rail cars where they would work from sunup until dark. They were given only one break with a little rice and water to keep them going.
Finally in May of 1945 Mr. Flowers’ days as a P.O.W. ended with the bombing of Nagasaki. “We were told by a Japanese officer that the U.S. and Japan had reached a friendly agreement.” Later that year he made it back home to Laurel, Mississippi.
Many years have gone by since his ordeal as a P.O.W. “I don’t know why I’m still here. All the men in my outfit are gone.” Mr. Flowers may not know the reason God has allowed Him to live but his friends and family know.
He is proof positive that no matter what struggles you face or private hells you may go through a relationship with Jesus Christ not only ensures that you will survive but that you can thrive after a traumatic life experience. He is also a testament of how God can take our weaknesses and turn them into strengths. How is it a man who was so food and water deprived and battle worn could get up and stand on his feet after being beaten with a bayonet? Was it the basic human instinct to survive? He knew he would be killed if he didn’t rise but where did that strength come from? Mr. Flowers would give a quick response. The same power that raised Jesus Christ from the grave raised Mr. Flowers’ beaten body from that dusty Pilipino road. This is the same power that raised him from that dark air deprived ship hull to the sunshine and fresh air on the ship’s deck. It was this divine power that kept his beaten fatigued body moving and working in those life sapping Japanese mines. If you haven’t experienced this power that animates all of life then Mr. Flowers invites you to know the man behind that power. He invites you to know his friend and Savior Jesus Christ. If he could speak to you directly, the Bataan Death March survivor who wears the scares of that terrible ordeal, would place your hand into the nail scarred hands of Jesus Christ who hung on a cross over 2000 years ago. This is the story behind the story, the power of faith that saved a WWII veteran’s life and soul.
Below is the conversation with Mr. Flowers that inspired the above column found in this week's edition of The Review.