World War II POWs gather in Natchez

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 5, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Three former World War II prisoners of war chose Natchez as the site of their 2006 reunion, arriving Wednesday to tour houses, attend the Historic Natchez Pageant and share memories.

Hunter Gates of Jackson made the arrangements, as his buddies, Ray Engstrand and Delton &8220;Rip&8221; Reopelle, came to Mississippi from Florida and California for the gathering.

&8220;We&8217;re the only three left of a nine-man B-17 crew stationed in England,&8221; Gates said. &8220;When we took part in the Dresden raid in 1945, we were hit by ground fire and had to bail out.&8221;

Email newsletter signup

Two of the crew did not bail out, he said. A German patrol took as prisoners all seven who hit the ground.

The former prisoners of war kept in touch after the war. In 2004, Hunter invited Engstrand and Reopelle to Jackson to view &8220;The Glory of Baroque Dresden.&8221; They decided to make the get-together an annual event. &8220;That first year, we spent a day in Natchez, and of course they fell in love with it,&8221; Gates said.

Gates, nose gunner on the warplane, went on to study pharmacy at Ole Miss and took a job in the marketing department of Upjohn Pharmaceuticals.

Reopelle, the co-pilot, acquired a doctorate degree, was a school teacher and a superintendent of schools.

Engstrand, the navigator, chose to remain in the military service and went on to fly B-52s for Strategic Air Command.

Dr. Jim Coy, manager of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, decided the trio of POWs deserved a little special recognition. The three veterans were to be recognized at the Wednesday evening pageant.

&8220;As I have gotten older myself, being a war baby born in 1942, I&8217;ve become more aware of that generation and what they did for us,&8221; Coy said. &8220;They didn&8217;t ask for anything special, but for all the young people participating in the pageant, I want them to know about the men and women of that era and the great sacrifices they made to make possible the kind of lives we have today.&8221;

Coy said he never misses an opportunity to put out his hand to shake the hands of veterans and offer thanks for what they did.

Gates has vivid memories of the war and particularly of his time as a prisoner of war. He became ill with diphtheria and watched others in the camp die of the disease. &8220;There was one boy who was seriously ill with diphtheria. We tried to take care of him, feed him and all,&8221; Gates said. &8220;The night he was so sick and dying he asked me to repeat the 23rd Psalm. … Somehow I was able to do it. The words came. I could not have done it before or after, but I did it for him.&8221;

Many other memories come back to him when he recalls those years he served in World War II, Gates said. And he knows it is the same for others. &8220;We all have our experiences and our memories,&8221; he said.