By Joanna Bastian
This week marks the 74th anniversary of the United States entering the Second World War. The Methow Valley felt the effects as gas, food and other materials were rationed. Men were drafted into service, women stepped into the work force, and children collected recyclables. Everyone felt the weight of the war. Seventy-two people from Okanogan County lost their lives. Three men from Pateros were captured and lived to tell the tale.
Roy Gebbers was 19 years old in February 1941 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. The following month, he was already in action in the Philippines, defending Manila Bay from Japanese invasion.
On Dec. 7 and 8 of that year, Japan deployed multiple air strikes against the United States, attacking Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and Manila Bay in the Philippines. Gebbers was taken prisoner and started the Bataan Death March. Thousands of soldiers died of starvation, thirst and brutality as they marched 60 miles under the Philippine sun to a POW camp.
Pete Joseph graduated from Pateros High School in May 1942, and turned 18. He was a star athlete, often running home after basketball practice to his family’s home at Azwell. He was called into service with the U.S. Army Air Force in February 1943. Joseph’s wiry build was a perfect fit for the ball turret on the belly of a B-17. He underwent flight training and aerial gunnery practice before deploying to England shortly before D-Day.
Not long after Joseph arrived in England, Gebbers endured yet another nightmare as he was moved to Camp Hoten in Manchuria via hell ship Tattori Maru. Hell ships were overcrowded, and prisoners were starved and brutalized. The unmarked prisoner ships were targeted as enemy ships by the Allies, and were often under attack.
While Joseph was fighting for the Allies from his ball turret, and Gebbers was fighting for his life at sea, Jack Nickell turned 18 and joined the U.S. Army on Oct. 30, 1942.
Eleven days after Nickell enlisted, Gebbers landed at Camp Hoten in Manchuria. Reports by the U.S. Consulate show a tough life endured by men who were even tougher. Rations were slightly above a starvation diet. Prisoners were beaten and executed. Still, they found small ways to fight back: planning escape routes and performing small acts of sabotage.
On March 8, 1944, Joseph’s B-17 bomber was hit. He bailed out and fell so fast that his boots were ripped from his feet. He was captured and held in solitary confinement while the Gestapo guessed at his ancestry: Japanese, Filipino, Chinese or Mexican.
The Native American refused to speak, giving only name, rank, and serial number. He was transported to Stalag Luft 17B, home to 30,000 Allied POWs. Men slept three to a bunk and food was scarce. Conditions were brutal.
In November 1944, while Gebbers and Joseph planned their escapes from POW camps, Nickell landed at Marseilles, France. He fought in the Battle of Hatten on Jan. 9, 1945, and was captured. Nickell was sent to Stalag 9B, Bad Orb, Germany.
In April, Germany began losing its foothold. Nickell was liberated April 1, 1945. The Soviet army was advancing fast, and the Nazis did not wish to be captured — so they started clearing the camps. A week after Nickell gained freedom, Joseph, along with 4,000 other Americans, was forced by the Nazis to march 281 miles, as the Germans tried to clear the camp and move the prisoners.
Joseph’s ordeal was nearly over. On May 3, 1945, Patton’s 13th Armored Division caught up with his group, captured the Germans, and evacuated the prisoners to France. One member of the liberating unit was PFC Eddie Holbrook, also a Pateros man and friend of Joseph.
Gebbers remained in Manchuria until after the atomic bombs ended the war. Japan surrendered on the Aug. 14, and the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, rescued Gebbers and his fellow POWs.
Gebbers returned to the United States in October 1945, and spent six months in medical rehabilitation. He was discharged from the service with honors in May 1946. Of his five years of service, three were spent as a POW. Gebbers served as Pateros’ chief of police for 25 years until he retired in 1977. He passed away in 1982.
Joseph rehabilitated and was discharged with honors in October 1945. His outfit, the 379th Bombardment Group, took some of the heaviest losses in the war. Joseph returned home and worked on the Columbia River hydroelectric projects. He passed away in 1991.
Nickell was honorably discharged from service in December 1945. He served on the Pateros school board. He was the mayor of Pateros in 1962, when the city council accepted the creation of Wells Dam. Nickell resigned in protest. He passed away in June 2013.