Sixty-seven years after U.S. Navy Petty Officer McPherson "Mac" Plecker nearly starved to death as a Japanese prisoner of war, he finally got the recognition and medals he earned.
"I knew I was due some medals, but I really never paid too much attention to it," said Plecker, 91. "I really didn't think after all this time I was going to get them."
But on Saturday morning, the World War II veteran was driven by stretch limousine to the Palms of Largo retirement community for a stirring medal award ceremony in front of about 150 guests, mostly veterans.
Nine medals were pinned to Plecker's black jacket, including the American Defense Service Medal, a Purple Heart and a Prisoner of War Medal for imprisonment between 1941 and 1945.
During those years, Plecker suffered beatings and torture. He survived by eating rats, boiled weeds, raw fish heads — even a can of shoe polish.
Now he has lung cancer, and it was his Suncoast Hospice team, with assistance from former U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis' office, that pushed to get the medals he deserved.
Daphni Austin, veterans relations liaison for Suncoast Hospice and director of Honor Flight of West Central Florida, told the crowd Saturday that she was struck by the first thing Plecker did when he returned home to the United States.
"He went and bought a Navy dress uniform. . . . To me this was a true statement of this man's loyalty and pride as a member of the U.S. Navy. After everything, what was important to him was to get back into uniform," she said.
That uniform had to be tailored — he weighed just over 80 pounds when he was released from prison camp.
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Plecker joined the Navy in 1940 and achieved the rank of machinist mate third class. He was stationed at Wake Island in the Pacific when the Japanese launched an air attack shortly after bombing Pearl Harbor.
Shrapnel from bombs tore into Plecker's chest and left arm. He still carries scars.
On Dec. 23, 1941, two weeks after the initial attack, the Americans were forced to surrender. Plecker's personnel and medical records were lost during the invasion.
Plecker would serve the balance of World War II in prison camps in China and Japan. After he was discharged, he went on with his life, owning a car lot for three decades and then a drive-through beverage store.
He never pursued the decorations to which he was entitled.
"It was just something he didn't really ever talk about," said his daughter Mary Gerrity, 48, of Tarpon Springs. "He's a very humble man."
Even today, the memories of his years as a POW still cause him pain.
"It's something I'd just as soon forget," he said.
But his recollections will live forever. In 2002, Plecker gave a recorded audio account of his military history to his friend, Clearwater attorney Carleton "Woody" Weidemeyer. It is now archived at the Library of Congress as part of the Veterans History Project.
In telling his story, Plecker recalled the first wave of bombers to fly over Wake Island.
"They were not much more than 100 feet off the ground," he said. "There wasn't much to do except run."
After the Americans surrendered, he was taken to an airfield, where his hands and neck were bound by wire to those of other prisoners in a daisy chain formation. He recalls being kept on the airfield for three days with no food and only "gasoline water" to drink. (The prisoners were given water from five-gallon gas cans that had not been rinsed out.)
Food rations over the next four years consisted of fist-size balls of rice and "soup" — hot water with a bit of vegetable juice in it.
The POWs were beaten for no reason, he said. Sometimes they were used by the Japanese for martial arts practice. Many died from exposure, malnutrition, diarrhea and pneumonia.
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By Sunday, the precious medals Plecker had received the day before, along with an American flag flown over the U.S. Capitol, were under glass, "where my dad can look at them every day," said Gerrity.
She said her father was tired out after all the pomp, but "still spunky." The nonagenarian lives independently in his own home in North Pinellas and drives a brand new red Chevy Camaro.
Still, he remains humble.
"It's nice to know people haven't forgotten us," Plecker said.