NEW MATAMORAS - The weight of his memories was evident on his face as Woodsfield resident Herman Zerger recounted the story of his time as a prisoner of war in Germany in 1945 Friday in the cafetorium at New Matamoras Elementary School.
"When I was taken, they shot the man with me, my squad leader. So I am very fortunate to be here," he said.
But after he finished speaking, the students, teachers and community members, including fellow veterans, gathered for the school's 23rd annual POW-MIA Recognition Day celebration stood and applauded, and a wide smile spread across his face. Zerger continued to wear that smile after the ceremony, as students filed by to shake his hand and those of other speakers.
"I'm just glad I'm able to go and do yet and participate and stay involved," he said.
Zerger also had invitations to POW-MIA events in Columbus, Chillicothe and Dayton, but returned to New Matamoras for the event in which he's participated for nearly two decades.
"I feel more at ease here," he said. "I know so many of the people, and the VFW's (Post 6387) been good to me."
EVAN BEVINS The Marietta Times
Former prisoner of war Herman Zerger, left, shakes hands with New Matamoras Elementary students after the 23rd annual POW-MIA Recognition Day celebration Friday at the school.
In years past, Zerger had been joined on stage by other POWs, including Pastor Eugene Parker, a Marietta resident who passed away in January. A photo of Parker on his 21st birthday while a POW in Germany now hangs on a wall just inside the entrance of the school.
"Everybody's going to miss Gene," New Matamoras Principal Bill Wotring said. "He was the socialite, a great guy, a funny guy, just full of life. He was a spark plug."
Zerger told the assembled students about the three months he spent in captivity, facing constant interrogation and torture, forced to do hard labor, wearing the same lice- and flea-infested clothing for three months and knowing death could come at any time, such as when the prisoners were marched across the German countryside.
"If you fell out of line, you were shot or bayoneted," he said.
Before Zerger spoke, four students read letters they had written to express their appreciation to veterans in general and POWs and those declared missing in action in particular.
"You are all very brave, heroic, tough and strong," sixth-grader Robert Hurt said.
Fifth-grader Jansen Stewart thanked veterans for risking their lives to fight for the freedom of others.
"That is the greatest thing anyone has ever done for me or my country," he said.
Ronnie Davis, past VFW District 5 commander, explained to students the significance of the symbols on the "Missing Man" table set up in honor of soldiers missing in action. To help them understand the magnitude of the number of Americans - 83,000 - still listed as prisoners of war or missing in action, he reminded the children the population of New Matamoras is about 1,000.
"Think about 83 New Matamorases everywhere. That's how many," Davis said.
U.S. Army veteran Tim Peterson, who lives in the New Matamoras area, told students not to squander the freedom that had been won for them by making wrong choices and getting mixed up with drugs.
"Life is made out of choices, young people," he said. "You can become prisoners of wrong choices in life."
The occasion was also used to recognize the sacrifices of two Frontier High School alumni - Army 1st Lt. Chris Rutherford, killed in action in Iraq in 2007, and Army Spc. Kyle Hockenberry, who lost both legs above the knee and his left arm above the elbow to an improvised explosive device last year in Afghanistan.
Wotring described how Rutherford excelled as a student, athlete, soldier and family member.
"In every aspect of his life, Chris Rutherford was an excellent example to young people, to you guys," he said. "You will do well if you can be as much like him as possible."
Wotring said the children can also learn from Hockenberry, who is continuing his rehabilitation in Texas.
"He never quit. He's coming back," he said.
Wotring echoed his call last year for all those in attendance to "do something" to honor Hockenberry. The students will write what they plan to do on posters and complete their self-appointed tasks by Christmas.
Wotring noted two students said they were going to pray for Hockenberry. Meanwhile, a group of sixth-graders used Friday's celebration to start raising money to contribute to efforts by two nonprofit groups to build a new "smart home" for Hockenberry.
The students wanted "to let him know there's support for him everywhere," said sixth-grader Isabella Rinard.
By the end of school Friday, the students had collected nearly $50.
Beavertown resident John Rush, a 37-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran, attended the ceremony for the first time Friday. His son Ashton, a sixth-grader at the school, had been inviting him for a while but Rush's work schedule never allowed him to make it.
"It was very emotional," said Rush, who served from 1993 to 1997 and stationed in Iraq in 1995. "Reminded me of some of the ones I served with that didn't make it home."