NEW MATAMORAS - In 1989, Johnny Schmidt was an eighth-grader at New Matamoras Elementary, participating in the school's first POW-MIA Recognition Day.
"I was amazed how many POWs there were," Schmidt said Friday. "I can't remember a whole lot from eighth grade, but I remember that."
Twenty-four years later, Schmidt is an intervention specialist at the school, and on Friday he joined with students, faculty and community members to once again pay tribute to soldiers held as prisoners of war and those whose whereabouts were never confirmed after the wars in which they fought.
Photo by Evan Bevins
From left, U.S. Army veteran Tim Peterson, former prisoner of war Herman Zerger, VFW District 5 Auxiliary President Betty Gray, past District 5 Commander Bob Jenkins and Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks recite the pledge of allegiance Friday at the start of New Matamoras Elementary’s annual POW-MIA Recognition Day.
The numbers of POWs able to attend the ceremony have dwindled to just one - Woodsfield resident Herman Zerger - as the number of World War II veterans around the country decreases, with more than 600 dying every day, according to the National World War II Museum. Zerger gets offers to attend other POW-MIA Day events, but he said he keeps coming back to New Matamoras because he knows and likes the people.
"It's great," he said. "I've had a good day."
Zerger told students of his ordeal being taken prisoner in Germany in 1945, and how it still affects him today.
"When we were forced to march across Germany, if you fell out of line, you were shot or bayoneted," he said. "This is something that you never forget."
"Due to the sacrifices of many, I am a free man. Still, after all these years, in my mind, I relive the torture and despair of being a POW," he said.
Schmidt said it's odd to think that the "greatest generation" is disappearing, but he said the fact that Zerger is the only POW still attending makes the ceremony even more special.
The recognition event is actually the culmination of a week of activities that get students really excited and interested in learning about the subject matter, Schmidt said.
"It's almost like a spirit week for a football game," he said. "Kids are so excited about it in their readings and to be able to carry the flag" at the start of the ceremony.
Several students read brief essays they had written about what the service of members of the military means to them.
"What is a hero?" said sixth-grader Jansen Stewart. "Is it a superhero? No. It's a man who puts his life on the line for every citizen."
During the ceremony, the school makes an effort to honor all veterans, of which there were 22 present at Friday's gathering. Principal Bill Wotring also paid tribute to Army 1st Lt. Chris Rutherford, a 2000 Frontier High School graduate killed in action in Iraq in 2007, and retired Cpl. Kyle Hockenberry, a 2010 Frontier alum who lost both legs above the knee and his left arm above the elbow in an improvised explosive device blast in Afghanistan in 2011.
Jeannie Berentz, past president of Veterans of Foreign Wars Auxiliary 6387, told the students about Air Force Capt. Doug Seeley, killed in action during the Vietnam War and the namesake of Capt. D. Seeley MIA Drive at the Wal-Mart shopping center in Marietta.
The ceremony impressed Anthony Adornetto, representing Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio. A Marine Corps veteran, he attends veterans activities throughout the 18-county 6th Congressional District Johnson serves.
"There is nothing even close to this," Adornetto said. "The New Matamoras community should be very proud of themselves. And I hope you never stop doing this."
The significance of the ceremony is apparent to New Matamoras students, including Schmidt's son, J.D., a fourth-grader at the school.
"I think it was one of the most important things you should listen to," he said.