Roughly 50 people came out to honor prisoners of war and service members missing in action Friday at the John Day Elks Lodge parking lot as John Day and five other cities dedicated Highway 26 a POW/MIA Memorial Highway.
John Day resident and Vietnam veteran Robert Van Voorhis said the purpose of the POW/MIA Memorial Highway is to honor Oregon’s nearly 1,000 POWs, of whom 200 died in captivity.
He said Highway 26 is the eighth highway in Oregon dedicated to POWs/MIAs. The new POW/MIA Memorial Highway came about because of a request to the Legislature by the Bend Heroes Foundation in 2019.
John Day resident and Vietnam veteran George Wright, who served from 1971 to 1973, said the ceremony honors veterans like him who, when returning home from Vietnam, were looked down upon.
“People didn’t talk to you back then,” he said. “In the airports, they’d yell all sorts of insults and spit on you.”
Prairie City resident and Korean War POW Melvin Rookstool was honored Friday. Rookstool joined the Army at 16 and was taken prisoner with approximately 400 others. Out of those 400 prisoners, Rookstool was one of 21 who were liberated.
Rookstool was awarded the Purple Heart, Oak Leaf Cluster, Prisoner of War Medal, Army of Occupation, President’s Citation, Korean Service Medal and Combat Infantry Badge.
Another Grant County resident, Oscar “Whitey” Lent, a POW, was honored as well. Lent, who was on Wake Island building roads for the military when the Japanese attacked, was taken prisoner for four years. His daughter, Leslie Traylor, was there to accept the honor on behalf of Lent, who passed away in 1982.
“I think my dad would have been very honored,” she said. “He was our dad, but we know before he was our dad that he went through a lot of bad things during the war, and it just brought a lot of that back and I was very, very proud of my dad.”
American Legion past commander Charles Schmidt, who emceed the ceremony, said a few years earlier he visited the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, Vietnam, which American POWs nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton.” The North Vietnamese used the prison to torture and interrogate servicemen.
“My respect for those POWs was amplified by the courage they showed in such harsh conditions,” he said.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, 80,000 soldiers have not been accounted for since World War II, and 60,000 of them never will be because they were lost at sea.