ELYRIA — Edward Yursky parachuted out of a burning B-17 and landed in a wheat field where he was captured by a German soldier in August 1944.
In January 1945, Paul Kleefeld was out of ammunition and hiding in a basement during the Battle of the Bulge when he and three other soldiers were given the option of surrendering or being attacked with grenades. Both Elyria men were honored at a Thursday ceremony for the hardships they endured as prisoners of war during World War II and are among the soldiers being recognized around the nation today as part of the annual POW/MIA Recognition Day.
Yursky, a tail gunner with the 8th U.S. Army Air Forces — the U.S. Air Force had not yet been established — was shot down while bombing a German oil refinery.
“The pilot said, ‘Get the hell out. I can’t fly straight,’ ” said Yursky, one of a nine-member crew who all parachuted out safely.
Yursky, 90, went from about 178 pounds to 138 pounds during his nine months of captivity in prison camps in Germany and Poland before being liberated by Russian soldiers. He recalled a “starvation diet” of 1,200 calories per day that consisted of bread, potatoes and a soup of dehydrated vegetables and water.
Yursky said he and 29 other prisoners would divide half a bucket of potatoes onto six plates each day and argue over portions. Red Cross food packages came in about once per month.
“That was the only time we had something decent to eat,” he said.
Kleefeld, an infantryman with the Army’s 87th Infantry captured in Luxemburg, said he drinks a beer once a year every April 28 to celebrate his liberation anniversary after 110 days of captivity. Kleefeld, 89, went from 160 pounds to 100 pounds in captivity eating bread mixed with wood chips.
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He said he walked some 300 miles in frigid temperatures — soldiers urinated on weapons to keep them from freezing during the Battle of the Bulge — as the prisoners were moved from camp to camp. The Germans took the Americans’ winter coats and Kleefeld said he contracted hepatitis and suffered from yellow jaundice while in captivity.
“I’m happy to be alive,” he said.
Kleefeld and Yursky were saluted at the annual ceremony held at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1079 at 500 S. Abbe Road.
“Thank you for all you have done and all you have endured,” said Ray Unger, a past post president and Air Force veteran who served in the Vietnam War. “You have demonstrated that you are the blood and the spirit that is America.”
Before the ceremony, Unger said he hopes the Pentagon will agree to trade Taliban prisoners in exchange for the freedom of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, captured in Afghanistan in 2009 and the only known American prisoner of war. Unger said he realizes government officials are reluctant to trade prisoners who may have killed Americans, but it’s worth it to save Bergdahl, 26, of Hailey, Idaho.
“(He’s) an American prisoner,” Unger said. “We must get our soldiers and sailors and airmen back.”
There are 83,413 soldiers missing in action, according to the Pentagon and Unger said organizations like the VFW are dedicated to providing their relatives with their remains and the “fullest possible accounting” of their deaths. A bell was rung after the 72 names of soldiers whose remains were recovered this year were read aloud.
“We are blessed to live in a country that actively cares about the recovery and return of our missing soldiers,” Unger told ceremony participants. “They will not be forsaken because we know that out there somewhere is an American family that deserves to know the fate of their loved one.”
Remembering the missing
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held captive in Afghanistan since 2009, is America’s only known prisoner of war, but there are 83,413 soldiers missing in action.
- World War II: 73,681.
- Korean War: 7,946.
- Vietnam War: 1,655.
- Cold War: 126.
- Afghanistan War and Iraq War: 6.
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.