The seven grandchildren of 91-year-old Francis R. “Bud” Edwards have all at one time or another learned to count to 10 in Japanese.
Just how the Southern Tier native himself learned to count in Japanese was something he never shared with his grandchildren until they were older.
Who would want to tell youngsters that if he had not learned, he would have faced a beating from his World War II captors.
That, however, is getting a little ahead of this modest hero’s story.
Before he became a prisoner of war, Edward had a close call Oct. 14, 1944, after a bombing run over Taiwan, then known as Formosa.
“One of our engines on the B-29 bomber gave out,” he recalls. “Quite honestly, the B-29 was very new, and the engines were not up to snuff. We had taken the first B-29s overseas, and we had been told that there was a good chance that if an engine went, it could cut the fuselage in half.”
With that terrifying possibility in mind, Edwards said, headquarters ordered the crew to bail out.
“We were above the China coast, which was controlled by the Japanese. We parachuted and were very, very lucky,” he says. “It was a cloudy day, and when we landed, we were immediately picked up by Chinese civilians.
“They hid us in a very thick hedgerow, and almost immediately, the Japanese fighter planes came down, but they couldn’t spot us in the hedgerow.”
When the enemy aircraft flew away, the B-29’s 11 crew members succeeded in making their way back to the home base, a distance of about 950 miles that took a month.
“We traveled on every form of transportation there was – rickshaw, bicycle, horses, and a riverboat that was towed upriver by hundreds of coolies walking narrow paths of rocks on both sides.”
The crew’s bombing missions soon resumed. They flew from India over “the Hump,” the Himalaya Mountains, to an airfield in China for refueling and several hours of shut-eye, before flying anywhere from eight to 16 hours round-trip to Japanese targets.
But exactly two months to the day from when they had first bailed out, Edwards and his fellow crew members again were forced to abandon their Superfortress.
Another plane’s payload of bombs apparently ignited while other B-29s flew close by in formation above Bangkok, he says, and 11 bombers were disabled in the midair explosion.
“By the time I got out of my plane, one of our engines exploded, and the right wing burned off,” he says. “We lost 37 men that day. My radio operator had his left hand severed.”
The escape was harrowing.
“The enemy was shooting up at us as we were parachuting down,” Edwards remembers. “Almost immediately after we landed, we were taken prisoner.”
Edwards and the other prisoners of war were placed on a riverboat by Burmese soldiers, allies of the Japanese at the time, he says.
“They put canvas over us, and we started moving on the river, and almost immediately, they met a Japanese boat and turned us over,” Edwards recalls.
“We were interrogated. I was sitting on the ground with my hands tied behind my back and my legs tied together with my parachute shroud lines. A Japanese soldier kicked me right in the mouth with his steel-cleated boot, and I lost my front teeth.
“Shortly thereafter, we were taken to a prison compound. I was in a cell that was 9 feet by 9 feet. There were five men in it. We slept on hardwood planks, and they gave us each a burlap bag as a blanket, pillow, whatever you wanted to use it for. I used my GI boots as a pillow.”
Edwards recalls being “slapped around pretty good” for about 30 days before being moved to another section of the prison camp including bamboo beds “that gave a little” and an outside area where they could walk.
“I was made the cook, and twice a day, I got a wooden bucket filled with uncooked rice,” he says. “We had a little place we could build a fire and enough water to cook the rice, but I never had a drink of water while I was there. We got about a half pint of sweet tea twice a day. That was our liquid.”
It was in the prison camp, he says, that he learned to count to 10 in Japanese.
“Every day, we had to line up and count off our number,” he remembers. “We were in lines of 10, and if we didn’t know our number, you would be pulled out of the line and severely beaten. So you learned quickly how to count in Japanese.”
All 11 crew members from his plane – including the radio operator whose arm had to be amputated at the left elbow – survived during his five months as a POW, which still amazes Edwards to this day.
“When we left that camp, the only thing he couldn’t do was tie his shoe or put his wristwatch on his right arm,” Edwards says.
After returning to civilian life, Edwards married Barbara Brown. They recently celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary.
These days, Edwards teaches a growing crop of great-grandchildren – six so far – how to count to 10 in Japanese.
Francis R. ‘Bud’ Edwards, 91
• Hometown: Hinsdale
• Residences: Rushford Lake;
Punta Gorda, Fla.
• Branch: Army Air Forces
• Rank: Staff sergeant
• War zone: China-Burma-India Theater
• Years of service: 1942-45
• Most prominent honors: Two Purple Hearts, two Air Medals, Prisoner of War Medal
• Specialty: Gunner, B-29 Superfortress