TAMPA — It has been nearly 70 years, but Kenneth Horner still can't seem to forgive himself.
He had volunteered to put the dying lieutenant out of his misery with a dagger in the heart. The lieutenant, a bomber crewman, was horribly burned when his plane crashed in flames. He was blind, deaf and languishing without medical care in a Japanese POW camp, his fingers falling off from gangrene. Horner couldn't bring himself to do it, and the lieutenant suffered two more days before he died.
"It was something that should have been done,'' Horner, a 93-year-old Silver Star recipient, said recently, tears running down his cheeks.
It's his worst memory of nearly three years as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, one that has played out in nightmares. The story is included in a 138-page memoir that Horner, a Town 'N Country resident, recently finished after decades of what his daughter called "surface conversation'' about his experience in the war.
He's still tinkering with the manuscript, trying to get the details just right.
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The fortunes of 2nd Lt. Horner turned bleak on June 4, 1942, the same day that, thousands of miles away, American carrier-based warplanes launched the Battle of Midway, sinking four Japanese carriers and turning the tide of the Pacific War.
Horner, nickamed "Jack'' from early on, was the navigator on one of three B-17 bombers that were to take off from India to bomb a Japanese airfield near Rangoon, Burma.
One plane could not make the mission and the second had to turn back, leaving the bomber carrying Horner and the rest of the crew to make the run alone. Military intelligence had reported that none of the feared Japanese Zero fighters were operating in the area, which reassured the crew.
Cloud cover obstructed the airfield at Rangoon, so the B-17 turned to bomb ships in the harbor. At that moment, the top turret gunner shouted, "Bandit at 2 o'clock high!'' Soon, two dozen enemy fighters pounced on the solitary bomber. Bullets killed the waist-gunner, rendered the top and bottom turrets inoperable, damaged the engines and rudder control, and started a fire. Horner, manning a .30-caliber machine gun, and the other gunners managed to shoot down four Zeros before the bomber was crippled.
The pilot flew the plane into a cloud to hide from the fighters and ordered the crew to bail out.
When the 23-year-old Horner floated to earth, some 900 miles behind enemy lines, he was captured by the Burmese Home Guard, operating under control of the Japanese. Within a short time, guards took Horner to a spot where a firing squad was forming. Horner, who had removed his shirt, writes: I can't imagine what possessed me to do it, but I started shouting that I was an American officer and not a spy and I wanted to be in my uniform if I was going to be shot.
As someone ran off to fetch his shirt, a Japanese official arrived and halted the execution.
Horner was transported eventually to Rangoon Central Prison.
A month later, the dreaded telegram from the Army arrived at his parents' home in New Orleans: "DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON SECOND LIEUTENANT KENNETH FOSTER HORNER UNITED STATES ARMY HAS BEEN REPORTED AS MISSING IN ACTION IN THE FAR EASTERN THEATER SINCE JUNE FOURTH.''
Crushed, his parents struggled to keep hope alive. His mother saved clippings about the incident and all correspondence, compiling it into a scrapbook after the war. It includes a letter of condolence from Gen. George C. Marshall, then Army chief of staff, and the citation awarding him the Silver Star.
Horner spent two years, 11 months in prison. He lost 30 pounds. He subsisted on rice and a thin soup made with eggplant, and later a more nutritious weed, that the prisoners grew. Horner says he ate as much of a gruel made of the bran husks of rice as he could, because he had no other way of getting vitamin B, which prevented beriberi, a condition characterized by symptoms such as fatigue, pain, numbness and difficulty walking.
Only one of the prison guards was sadistic, says Horner, who was the ranking officer among the American prisoners. The man the prisoners called "Weno'' — or Ueno — beat one of Horner's crewmates with the buckle end of a belt, causing the man to lose hearing in one ear. The other guards struck prisoners with open hands, for such infractions as not working hard enough and failing to salute them with a bow.
Allied troops were overtaking Burma by the spring of 1945. As they threatened Rangoon, the prison overseers made the able-bodied men march some 60 miles north to Pegu, When they got there, the Japanese commandant told them he could not take them any farther. They were free.
As Horner and a British officer were deciding how to summon rescuers, Allied planes attacked, bombing and strafing the area. Horner ducked behind a tree and prayed, but decided it was no use.
"I guess I became a confirmed atheist at that time,'' he says. Having been raised a Roman Catholic, he had always heard that all things merciful were attributed to the Christian god, but you "can't attribute those in a damn prison camp, when you're seeing men die like flies.''
Finally, British troops rescued them. Horner wound up in a hospital in India, where he was served a lunch of steak and potatoes.
Soon, a general came by and pinned the Silver Star on his uniform. The medal, third highest for gallantry in the face of the enemy, was awarded to the entire crew, some posthumously, for their action during the attack by enemy fighters. Horner was promoted to first lieutenant and then captain and collected about $8,000 in back pay before being discharged from the service. He used the money to go into the window manufacturing business.
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Horner wrote the manuscript, he says, after being encouraged by a friend of his daughter's, a woman who works in the television industry. He says he may self-publish the memoir, which he titled M.I.A.
He worked on it for more than a year, dictating the story using a computer program that converted his speech to written words. He would work for hours at a time, says his daughter, Connie Horner.
"There were some hard days,'' she says. "The memories started to come back. I think it had been suppressed.
"But when we actually read it, I said, 'I feel like I'm meeting you for the first time.' ''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.