Randall Edwards stood up as straight as the 20-year-old sailor he once was after being unexpectedly introduced early Friday morning in a tree lined Veterans Memorial Park in Lakeland.
The occasion was an observance of POW/MIA Day, which took place all over the nation. In Florida, the day was marked with a special declaration by Gov. Rick Scott.
But Lakeland’s ceremony, held in a monument-studded park overlooking Lake Beulah, included the dedication of a monument to those who have been prisoners of war and to those missing.
Edwards never thought about missing the event just because he is 99 years old. He strode up the lengthy walkway from the lakefront to the ceremony.
When World War II broke out, Edwards was a sailor aboard a submarine tender stationed in the Philippines.
“We serviced 19 submarines and we were loaded with torpedoes, the best food around explosives, but we had only one gun. The rest of the fleet was pulled out, but we remained taking care of the submarines,” he said.
Don’t ask him about being captured by the Japanese because he will immediately correct you.
“I wasn’t captured; I was surrendered by Gen. (Jonathan) Wainwright,” the Navy veteran said.
It is still an event that bothers him.
The Japanese invaded the Philippines Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. American forces held out until May 6, 1942. According to many historians, Wainwright offered to surrender his forces on the island of Corregidor only, but the Japanese commander insisted all of the American troops in the Philippines be surrendered, including Edward’s ship.
The ceremony and unveiling of the POW/MIA memorial were sponsored by the family members of the late Foster Heath, a community leader who, as a tail gunner in World War II, was one of only two to survived from his bomber and spent 11 months in a German prisoner of war camp.
Veterans Memorial Park is larger than most in Florida. It contains memorials to fallen members of the military, a Pearl Harbor monument, memorials to the fight against terrorism, to local fallen police officers and to firefighters and EMT’s who died in the line of duty.
“We have no tanks or artillery here,” said Air Force Col. Gary Clark (retired), chair of the Polk County Veterans Council. “This is a place for quiet reflection, remembering, and education.”