Each year for the past 32, they've gathered in the state to swap tales of cruelty and celebrate their liberty from some of history's sorriest episodes.
As young men, they survived torture and other atrocities. As old men, they've kept gathering – even as their health told them not to – because no one else understands better what each endured decades ago.
Yet today , when the N.C. Department of American Ex-Prisoners of War convenes its yearly convention in Charlotte, it likely will be for the last time.
The group, a state-supported department since 1948, has been made up mostly of former World War II POWs, except for a few from Korea. At one time, the convention drew hundreds. This week, 65 are registered, many of those widows of former members.
“We've gotten old, or we're dying, and we just don't have the numbers anymore,” said Ed Halliburton of Charlotte, the group's state commander, who in 1944 was a 20-year-old B-24 radio operator who escaped captivity after six months.
“We used to have three full days. The aches and pains won't allow us to do that anymore.”
‘Trying to forget'
It took years for retired Charlotte architect Frank Caldwell to get involved with the ex-POWs. “I spent a lot of time trying to forget,” he said.
Now 85 and the group's senior vice commander, he's attending his 20th convention.
Caldwell's story illustrates the others – movie-script events defining their lives.
He was 20, raised in Maiden in Catawba County, a flight engineer and gunner on a B-24 bomber. On June 30, 1944, his 44th mission, enemy flak took out the first and third engines over Budapest, Hungary.
The bomber began a tight downward spiral. The left wing melted off. Then the front end exploded, and Caldwell found himself floating around in the back with three crewmates. He and another mate made it out.
As his chute opened, tracer bullets tore holes. On the ground, Germans troops were waiting. Caldwell was beaten and marched through the city “to let everyone take a poke at me.” When he refused to cooperate, his captors put him in front of a firing squad.
“I looked out and saw six soldiers on their knees and six standing,” he said.
He thought of his mother. A Gestapo minister asked if he had any last words. No.
“Someone pulled a black hood over my head. I heard the (rifle) bolts pull back. I said to myself, ‘This is it.' And then for some reason, a voice shouted a command in German, and they didn't shoot.”
Caldwell spent 11 months as a POW. Then he and 8,000 others were sent on a 700-mile march (known as the Black March) as allied troops closed in. Many died – some from dysentery or other illnesses, some bayoneted or shot when they were too weak to go on.
By the time they were freed, Caldwell was down to 80 pounds, half his weight.
Memories flood back
Six decades later, the memories flood back at these conventions. After this one, members will likely meet in some fashion – perhaps a yearly lunch.
But their biggest concern now is not surviving, but being remembered.
“In 10 years most of us will be gone,” Halliburton said. “We talk to schools. We talk to Rotary clubs. Anything to perpetuate what these men went through.
“It would be tragic if America forgot their sacrifices.”