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Ceremony recognizes former POWS who came home

One local veteran is bent on keeping awareness high when it comes to the Prisoner of Wars and Missing in Action (POW/MIA) associated with World War II, Korea and the Vietnam War - both those fortunate enough to return home and those still out there and unaccounted for.

Every year, April 9 is proclaimed by the President of the United States as National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day, a time that honors and recognizes all prisoners of war that came home.

On that note, former Vietnam era and Desert Storm veteran Lyle Wells of West Fargo has been working long and hard to develop the POW/MIA Public Awareness Project, a non-profit charity organization he implemented in 2000 to keep the POW/MIA interest burning.

As an off-shoot of the project, Wells is promoting the second annual National Prisoner of War Recognition Day Monday, April 9, with a special ceremony starting at 7 p.m. at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds Ag building to honor approximately 32 former POWS. The intent of the event is humble - to simply say thank you and help further awareness about other Prisoners of War and Missing in Action still unaccounted for.

Most of the former POWs that will be in attendance are from North Dakota but a few are from Minnesota, and one each from Tennessee, Montana and Illinois. Those deceased will be represented by their families. All former prisoners of war will be formally recognized during the ceremony and receive a United States flag that flew over our nation's capitol on the date of their choice.

Wells explained that it is uncertain exactly how many North Dakota POW/MIAs there are total because there is no official list. He started with over 60 names and mailed that many letters out, receiving the 32 replies.

Wells said that the ceremony will indeed be unique in that it is dedicated to two individuals, WWII veterans Clarence Larson, Fergus Falls, Minn., and Ben Steele, Billings, Mont., who were both former prisoners of war and survivors of the Bataan Death March.

The pair has visited the area in the past, speaking at the National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony held in Sept of 2001 - Larson at West Fargo High School and Steele at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Wells' interest in POW/MIAS was instilled after meeting Larson and Steele for the first time. "These two individuals were the first two POWs that I sat down and talked to," Wells said. "To say I was impressed would be an understatement. My life changed that day. The more I thought about it, the more I read about our prisoners of war and what they went through. I was engulfed by the thought of prisoner of war life and became almost obsessed with it. I wanted to do something for these unsung heroes. The more I delved into it, and the more responses I received back, the more spellbound I became. These stories are real and not Hollywood reproductions. The strength these people find within themselves to live and survive is phenomenal."

Consequently, Wells worked with the Veterans Administration Hospital in Fargo when they hosted their September ceremony, but quickly realized he wanted to do more and something different. That was when he decided to elaborate locally with the April 9 ceremony. "No one had done anything on that date for our former prisoners of war," Wells recalled. "I was going to change that, and it all started by meeting Steele and Larson."

Wells said another unique element of the evening will be the fact that it is all about the invited guests. "We don't advertise or promote the project on our flyers or the program itself. It is certainly not about me, it's not about the project and it's not about who we are or what we do. It's all about the men (there are no women in this area that were prisoners of war) that served their country in captivity.'

There will also be two other very special guests in attendance - pilot George Ott from Dickinson and radioman Richard Spellerberg from Girard, Illinois. Both are former POWS who flew on the same mission, when their aircraft was hit by flack and went down. All the crew members had to bail out, and Ott and Spellerberg are the only two known to be alive today. Neither was aware of that until last year when they were contacted for the recognition event. Wells said by the time he found out it was too late for last year's ceremony, so the plan was set in motion to reunite them this April 9, the first time in 53 years.

Scott Nelson, a farmer from Solen, N.D., who helped Wells reunite the men, is also donating three original prints for a silent auction at the April 9 event. The prints are of aircraft flown by three Prisoners of War, including Ott, when they were shot down. They are presently on display at the Fargo Air Museum for all to see.

The National Prisoner of War Recognition Day ceremony will also feature the Fargo North High School Band and Choir performing before and during the ceremony, joining together for the "National Anthem," which in an unconventional twist will be heard approximately 40 minutes into the ceremony after all the guests are introduced.

The Fargo South High School Air Force Jr. ROTC will serve as the color guard and perform the POW table and honors ceremony; during which time the North Dakota Air National Guard will land a helicopter outside the back door and one of the crew members will present the U.S. Flag to the color guard.

There will also be between 400 and 500 pictures on display for all to see, supplied by the honored guests or their families, along with personally written accounts; video excerpts about the release of POWS from WWII, Korea and Vietnam; as well as a prisoner of war cage and tower duplicating those used during the Vietnam era.

Wells encourages everyone to come out and take in the event for which there is no charge. Refreshments will be served after the ceremony.

He doesn't think a large presence is asking too much. "These former POWs have been through so much," Wells noted. "They carry it for life. I don't think it's too much to ask 90 minutes of your time just to say thank you."

Several state and national dignitaries have been invited to be a part of the event. West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern will be in attendance to share a few comments as will the Commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs.