A Half Century Later, LeRoy Schneider's Years in a Japanese POW Camp Still Haunt Him

Article excerpt

Byline: Bill Cole Daily Herald Staff Writer

LeRoy Schneider hasn't seen "Saving Private Ryan."

Or "The Thin Red Line."

He can't bring himself to watch.

"I can't handle the violence - it brings back too many bad memories," the 78-year-old World War II veteran explains, a grimace of far-off pain playing briefly across his still-chiseled face.

The former U.S. Marine's involvement in the war is an epic in its own right.

Schneider, of Barrington, was part of the fighting force that defended Wake Island in the Pacific in the early days of the war.

For 16 days in December of 1941, the outgunned Marines put up a fight before the outpost was overtaken.

For the next four years, Schneider and others were Japanese prisoners of war.

The tall American was hog-tied naked on the beach with other servicemen, sure they all were about to be executed. Then he was transported to China and Japan on ships where sailors beat him. Finally, he was forced to perform labor that, by the end of the war, nearly killed him.

The ghosts and nightmares from the experience still haunt him more than 50 years later.

"They were the most brutal, sadistic, atrocious, barbaric people I ever met," Schneider says of the Japanese soldiers. Then, without a wink of hesitation, he adds, "Thank God for the (atomic) bomb."

Heroes for their valor then, the Wake Island defenders' story continues to be chronicled today.

One of the latest to do so, University of Central Arkansas history professor Gregory J.W. Urwin, put Schneider on the cover of his book: "The Siege of Wake Island - Facing Fearful Odds" (University of Nebraska Press, $59.95).

The account is not so much about Schneider as the grunts like him: 449 Marines, several hundred civilian construction workers and a handful of sailors and soldiers who repelled wave after wave of Imperial assault before being ordered to surrender in the face of superior odds.

'Remember Wake!'

For a nation newly at war, "Remember Wake!" became a patriotic rallying cry.

"These books are about Wake," Schneider said, pointing to two others on his coffee table. "But he (Urwin) talks about the people who were there. He takes care of the little guy."

It may be why a young Schneider, arm in arm with two fellow Marines on the island of Oahu, is pictured on the jacket cover.

Urwin tells the story of the small island's gutsy defense through the defenders' eyes, and in rather lengthy fashion: 570 pages.

Schneider is not so verbose. The pain of battle and 44 1/2 months at the hands of his Japanese captors make memories harder to retrieve.

Some he simply blocked out. He and his wife Cece were married 15 years before she learned any of the details of her husband's ordeal.

To this day, he can't watch a war movie.

Cece Schneider wrote a 1992 piece for the Marines' Leatherneck magazine describing the nightmares from which her husband still awakens, struggling against unseen enemies.

Following the war, stress became the enemy. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would be a term coined later, but Cece Schneider found herself dealing with it years before the syndrome had that name.

She would run interference for her husband, trying to keep the pressures of the outside world to a minimum. Even their five kids learned to "protect daddy."

Despite his reticence, the retired Ready-Mix Concrete Co. manager wants the world to know the brutality experienced at the hands of the enemy - even if it was more than a half century ago.

Under attack

Schneider's descent into hell came winging over Wake on Dec. 8, 1941.

The private first class was just 20 when 27 Japanese "Nell" bombers, camouflaged green and tan, swept out of a tall cloud bank and bore down on the tiny sun-scorched atoll below.

Word had already come of the attack on Pearl Harbor several hours before. …