When Randall Edwards entered a Japanese prisoner camp during World War II, he expected his life to end soon.
Despite enduring torture and malnourishment during more than three years as a slave laborer in the Mukden Prison Camp in Japanese-held Manchuria, Edwards survived to be liberated by Allied forces in 1945.
Having lived through unthinkable deprivation, Edwards clung gratefully to life for another 75 years.
“He was sharp and alert right to the end,” said Gary Clark, chairman of the Polk County Veterans Council and a friend of Edwards. “His last comment was, ‘I’m not going to go easy.’ He fought to the end.”
Edwards, a Lakeland resident for nearly four decades, died Tuesday at home at age 103. He was among the oldest living American prisoners of war from World War II.
Clark joined other friends and admirers in a drive-by celebration of Edwards’ 103rd birthday at his home in July.
“Personally, I consider having known Randy and had a chance to spend time with him and talk to him as one of the great experiences in my life, of just understanding the incredible optimism that he exuded at every juncture,” Clark said. “I’m grateful that many of us had the chance to be not only at his 100th birthday but his 102nd and 103rd, and we were certainly looking forward to maybe another one.”
Edwards was born on a ranch in Wyoming in 1917, when the United States was engaged in World War I. After graduating in 1935 from Ruskin High School in Ruskin, Nebraska, he enlisted in the Navy.
Early in World War II, he served as an Airman First Class radioman aboard the USS Canopus, a submarine tender stationed in the Philippines. When Army Maj. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, commander of Allied forces in the Philippines, surrendered to the Japanese in May 1942, Edwards joined some 1,200 Allied personnel taken to the prison camp in Manchuria.
Edwards described his experience for a Ledger reporter before his 100th birthday celebration in 2017. He and other POWs served as slave laborers for the Manchurian Tool Company, forced to work seven days a week in a factory that made bullets for the Japanese military.
Edwards said he and other American POWs engaged in sabotage to thwart the production, and his captors moved him to different positions as they noticed his faulty work. He said the Japanese guards also frequently struck him on the head, and he blamed his near-deafness late in life on those blows.
Conditions in the camp were horrific, with temperatures in the winter dropping to 50 below zero. Provided with minimal clothing, prisoners had to hike three miles to the factory, and Edwards said he was left with permanent nerve damage in his feet after they froze during the walks.
He said 169 prisoners died in the first winter, when the captors fed them nothing but small servings of cabbage soup. The POWs captured and ate mice, rats and wild dogs, Edwards said, and they managed to steal some items and exchange them for food.
He described swiping diamonds from a grinding wheel in the factory and selling them to a local Chinese resident for a ball of cheese.
Clark said Edwards witnessed many horrific episodes. When the Japanese captors caught three American prisoners who had escaped from the camp, they forced all the POWs to watch as guards beat the men to death.
Allied forces liberated the prisoners in August 1945. Edwards’ weight had dropped from 165 pounds to 98 pounds during his time in captivity. He recalled that American B-29 bombers dropped cases of food into the camp, and he found a gallon can of peaches and gorged on them until he vomited.
After returning home, Edwards re-enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Japan as part of the occupation force. Having attained the rank of Warrant Officer, he retired in 1955 and earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida.
Edwards worked for 24 years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and after his retirement he moved to Lakeland to be near his son, Dr. Randy Edwards, then an internist at Bond Clinic in Winter Haven and now retired. Edwards became a national service officer for the American Ex-Prisoners of War Organization and American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, helping thousands of veterans obtain benefits from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Edwards’ first wife, Mary, died in 2006, and he is survived by his second wife, Rose Mary Meredith.
Clark said he met Edwards about 10 years ago when he was helping plan the dedication of a monument to POWs and those listed as missing in action from military actions. Clark said Edwards called him the day before the ceremony, modestly asking if he could attend and saying that he had a limited ability to walk.
Clark arranged a spot for Edwards close to the monument.
“As it turned out, he got there and he walked all over,” Clark said.
Like many veterans, Edwards rarely volunteered details about his war experience but would answer direct questions, Clark said. The Polk County Veterans Council captured some of Edwards’ memories in a 30-minute video interview.
Speaking to The Ledger before his 100th birthday, Edwards said the lasting impact of his captivity was not just physical. For years after the war, the slightest touch would trigger memories of being beaten by the Japanese guards in the camp, he said.
“I still have flashbacks occasionally, and it’s been an awful long time,” he said. “It’s very rare, I’ll admit, but it’s still there. Something will trigger it. It might be a scene on TV or something. It might be God knows what.”
Despite the physical and psychological toll, Edwards displayed a sunny disposition and a keen wit. He regularly played golf into his late 90s, and at age 96 he traveled to Antarctica, completing visits to all seven continents. Even beyond age 100 Edwards took daily walks and did some gardening, Clark said.
Family members, friends and fellow veterans staged a 100th-birthday gathering for Edwards at the Club at Eaglebrooke in 2017. Lt. Ida Quigley of the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division in Orlando presented him with a framed letter of recognition from acting Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley.
“He’s an obvious war hero, a patriot and an individual who never gave up,” Clark said. “He was determined to survive the trials and torture that he endured in the slave labor camp for 3½ years. He’s certainly an inspiration to anyone who has ever observed him or had the chance to meet him and talk with him.”
Edwards was buried with military honors Tuesday at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.
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