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WWII prisoner donates US flag to Airborne & Special Operations Museum

Airborne & Special Operations Museum (Gerry Dincher/Flickr)

The flag is in surprisingly good shape for its age.

Made at least 100 years ago, the red, white and blue have only slightly faded. The 48 stars remain neatly in place. The edges are slightly frayed, and a few small moth holes dot the banner.

But there is no more important family treasure for Patty Kelly Stevens and her relatives. This American flag has been a reward, a sign of hope and a reminder of love and loss.

Now, for the first time in a century, the flag has left the family.

On Friday, Stevens — now 93 years old — and dozens of family members made the trek from Oklahoma to North Carolina to donate the flag to the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in downtown Fayetteville.

The flag — once presented to the family by Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood — has survived fire, war and time itself. And now, it will be forever preserved.

“It’s not just a U.S. flag…,” said Jim Bartlinski, director of the museum. “The story behind it is incredible.”

Now the museum will help tell that story. And in doing so, become its new caretakers.

“We have an obligation to care for that flag until the end of time,” Bartlinski said.

During World War II, Stevens’ mother, Selma Croft, hid the flag under threat of death as the family was held prisoner for three years in the Philippines.

The flag — which briefly flew over the Los Banos Internment Camp — became a symbol of hope for the prisoners there in the weeks before a daring raid to rescue them.

And in the decades since, it has honored the caskets of several family members — including veterans and survivors of Los Banos.

“The flag means so much to me,” Stevens said. “To all of us… to my family.”

The flag’s story begins long before the war.

Alfred J. Croft, Stevens’ father, was a self-taught pilot who served in World War I and had come to the Philippines in 1918 to help train Filipino flyers. There, he met Selma, who came to the islands as a nurse in 1919.

The two married and lived in China and then Hawaii — where Stevens was born — before returning to Manila.

At a carnival in the early 1920s, Alfred Croft rescued the flag from a fire that had engulfed the event. Wood, then governor-general of the Philippines, was so impressed that he awarded the flag to Croft.

For two decades, the flag stayed in the Croft family. They lived an easy life in the Philippines, Stevens said.

But that changed on Dec. 8, 1941, a day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Selma Croft was awakened at 5:30 a.m. that day with news of the attack. Her husband was working in Hawaii at the time.

Stevens and her younger brother, William, were sent home from school early. And on that same day, the Japanese began bombing the island.

“We were not prepared for war,” Stevens recalled. The troops in the Philippines had World War I-era equipment. And they took heavy casualties as Japanese forces overran the islands.

On Jan. 6, 1942, the war reached the family’s doorstep. Stevens was 17, months from graduating high school and moving to California.

But Japanese soldiers ordered her to put her life on hold. They demanded that the family pack enough food and clothing for three days.

“The three days lasted three years and two months,” Stevens said.

Unbeknownst to Stevens, her mother packed the family’s American flag with her things. For three years, Selma Croft would keep the flag hidden — probably by hiding it in a mattress, Stevens reckons.

Croft wouldn’t have known whether the family would ever be able to fly the flag again, let alone if the family would return alive.

Stevens, speaking to a group of family and veterans at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum, related how her family was held first at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. There were 6,000 prisoners on the campus. Stevens slept on a concrete floor and worked in the kitchen and a vegetable garden. Japanese sentries watcher her shower and forced her to bow whenever they passed.

“It was humiliating for us,” she recalled.

As Santo Tomas grew more crowded, the Japanese sent prisoners to build another camp on the island of Luzon — a camp that would become known as the Los Banos Internment Camp.

Stevens said her brother — then 14 years old — was sent to help build the camp. He would never be the same, she said.

Meanwhile, Stevens and her mother stayed at Santo Tomas. As the war waged on, conditions became worse.

“They had a saying,” Stevens said. “‘When victorious, we can be generous.’”

As food rations shrank and abuse rose, Stevens said prisoners realized that American troops must be getting close.

After nearly three years in prison, Stevens said she and her mother were taken to Los Banos.

The internment camp was 40 miles away, but by train, it took the prisoners nine hours to arrive.

“We thought it was going to be better,” she said. “It wasn’t.”

At Los Banos, the prisoners were surrounded by jungle.

“We could look across the fence and see bananas on the trees,” Stevens said. “But we couldn’t get there.”

“It got to the point we could hardly walk,” she said.

On Jan. 7, 1945, the prisoners received an unexpected surprise. As the inhabitants of the camp awoke, they realized that their captors had unexpectedly left them unattended.

The soldiers had been called away to a battle in Manila, Stevens said. Prisoners ran about the camp shouting “We’re free! We’re free!”

Amid the celebration, Selma Croft took her flag out of hiding and offered it to be raised over the prison camp.

“I had no idea she had it,” Stevens said. “We sang the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘God Save the Queen.’ ”

Some of the stronger men left the camp to get food from a nearby village. Others broke into the Japanese food stores.

“We lived like kings,” she said.

But even with no guards, most of the 2,000 prisoners — both civilians and troops — were unable to leave.

“We were afraid. We had no place to go,” Stevens said. “We couldn’t get away.”

After the brief respite, the flag was lowered and hidden once again.

When Japanese guards returned a week later, they repeatedly asked about the flag. For three days, the guards searched prisoners’ barracks trying to find it.

A camp leader promised that when he was done with the Americans, they would be eating dirt. And soon food became even scarcer.

Stevens recalled eating pigweed and brush. “Anything just to stay alive,” she said.

Prisoners could see Allied planes overhead, but they worried that any rescue would come too late.

“They had already dug the ditches for the bodies,” Stevens said.

On the early morning of Feb. 23, 1945, help fell from the sky — angels in parachutes.

As Filipino guerillas attacked from the ground, U.S. troops with the 11th Airborne Division came from the sky.

“It was the happiest day of my life,” Stevens said. “To see those paratroopers come.”

With bullets flying, the family hid under their beds. But the Allied forces quickly overran the Japanese guards.

Stevens said her freedom came with the sound of footsteps as one of the soldiers entered the barracks.

“Are you a Marine?,” she asked.

“Hell no. I’m not a Marine. I’m a paratrooper,” the man responded.

“He was so mad… those paratroopers considered leaving me there,” Stevens joked.

Stevens said she can never repay the paratroopers who rescued her and others. That’s why it’s perfect to pass the flag to the Airborne & Special Operations Museum.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the airborne,” she said.

The donation — officially made on the 73rd anniversary of the Los Banos Raid — will be displayed through the weekend in the museum lobby, Bartlinski said.

Then officials will begin the needed steps to conserve the flag before putting it back on display in time for Flag Day in June. It will remain on display through July 4 and will eventually have a permanent home in the museum’s main exhibit hall.

Paul Kelly, Stevens’ son, said his family was willing to risk their lives to keep the flag. And he’s now encouraged that the museum will ensure it lasts forever.

“It’s not perfect,” he said of the 100-year-old flag. “But hell, what is?”

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© 2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.