Overland Park woman shares WWII POW encounter

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Tallgrass Creek resident Betsy Heimke – unbroken – was a held as a teenager during WWIII in internment camps in the Philippines (photo by Mel Tansill)

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. – Betsy Heimke doesn’t need to see “Unbroken,” the movie, directed and produced by Angelina Jolie. It’s based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book about Louis Zamperini and the torture he endured at the hands of the Japanese in a WWII prison camp. Heimke lived her own version of it.

Zamperini’s story is one of survival, resilience and redemption (he traveled to Japan before his death and forgave his captors). Heimke’s story is also one of survival and resilience. She, however, will never forgive her captors.

“They treated us like animals,” said Heimke, who as a teenager was one of the 5,000 American civilians imprisoned in internment camps. “We rarely got food. There were no bathrooms. I got deathly ill. I will never forgive what they did to us.”

Heimke, who now lives at Tallgrass Retirement Community in Overland Park, Kan., recalls her ordeal as if it were yesterday.

In 1941, she and her brother, Billy, lived in Bagiou, Philippines, with their parents. Her mother and father taught school, and her father started a lumber company before World War II broke out.

Heimke and her family were captured by Japanese soldiers on December 27, 1941, and taken to U.S. Army Camp John Hay, where they remained for three months. They were subsequently taken to Camp Holmes, outside of Baguio. After two years in Camp Holmes, the Japanese moved the prisoners to Bilibid Penitentiary in Manila, where conditions were very grim.

“We had to sleep among feces and vomit on beds,” Heimke said. “A 20-foot troth held together with wire was a latrine. Many people died.”

American troops ultimately arrived in Manila, and the prison camp was evacuated by the U.S. Army’s 37th Division.

“The bombs looked like tinsel on a Christmas tree,” Heimke said, remembering the day when American B-25 planes flew over the camp. “It was wonderful. I cried tears of joy. The soldiers who rescued us fought door-to-door in the streets of Manila. They gave us candy and they set up a kitchen. We got scrambled eggs and coffee.”

Heimke and her family left the Philippines and were taken to the United States, and to freedom, via a Dutch freighter. They arrived in San Francisco and then visited friends in Montana and Wisconsin.

Heimke eventually earned a nursing degree from Northwestern University, married and worked at Shawnee Mission Medical Center. Her husband, Karl, who was a B-26 Army Air Corps pilot during WWII, died this past summer. He was cremated October 4 on the date of their 62nd wedding anniversary.

“I wear his wedding ring on necklace all the time,” Heimke said. She has two sons and two daughters, six grandchildren (one girl and five boys) and four great-grandchildren (all boys). “My husband is always with me.”

Heimke made an American flag of scraps from WWII that she framed and keeps in her apartment. On it she wrote: “Where liberty dwells, there is my country.”

Heimke today is a member of the Heart of America Ex-POW organization. She has penned a memoir titled “Bring Cup, Plate and Spoon” about her experience.