Captured by German soldiers in 1944, U.S. Army Pvt. Heflin Garr May suffered for nine months in three prison camps, surviving on little more than boiled cabbage and scorched barley.
"I wondered if I was going to get home at all," said May, recalling his ordeal.
On Saturday, the 90-year-old was in his native Fleming County for the dedication of a memorial that lists the names of all prisoners of war and missing in action from the county since the War of 1812.
The memorial was the idea of Tamara Belcher, a board member of Task Force Omega of Kentucky Inc., a POW-MIA support group. Her husband, Vietnam veteran Danny "Greasy" Belcher, is executive director of the group.
A few years back, Tamara Belcher heard May and another POW from Fleming County, Herd Shrout, talk about their experiences in World War II prison camps.
Their words never left her, Belcher said, and she began to think of ways to honor the two men and others.
"I wanted to make sure this important part of history is documented for generations to come," she said.
In November 2009, Belcher began doing research to find Fleming County natives and residents who had been prisoners of war or missing in action at some point. Using genealogical records and library and online sources, she finished compiling the names about three weeks ago.
The 5-foot-tall black granite slab, which sits on a lawn adjacent to the American Legion in downtown Flemingsburg, bears 33 names now. But she said it is a work in progress and that others are likely to be added as families come forward with information.
The $4,700 needed for the project came from grassroots fund-raising.
She said she thinks the Fleming County monument is unique in that it includes soldiers from as far back as the War of 1812. Many similar monuments don't go back any further than World War I, she said.
Of all the people honored on the monument, May is thought to be the only one living. Shrout died soon after Belcher heard him speak, she said.
May recalled in an interview Saturday that after his capture in France, he was forced to walk for five days with his fingers interlaced on top of his head.
He said he lost more than 40 pounds during his stay in prison camps in France, Germany and Austria. A few care packages from the Red Cross were the only respite for him and other prisoners, May recalled.
May said he fared better than some other prisoners of war in that he avoided being beaten. But he said his physical condition worsened by the day. He said he was not allowed a bath for the duration of his confinement from August 1944 until May 1945.
In his mid-20s at the time, May said he was afraid he would never see his wife and young daughters.
After the war, May returned to Fleming County. In 1957, he moved to Tennessee to work as a civil service employee at a Naval station.
May still lives in Tennessee, but his five children reside in Central Kentucky.
"I think there should be similar memorials in every county in the state," he said.
Phyllis Peters of Fleming County was at the dedication to honor her uncle Elmo Jewett Hyatt, who she said died in August 1942.
"I think it's wonderful to remember our men and women who have given their lives for our freedom," said Peters.
According to the records on the Military Times Web site, Hyatt was serving aboard a United States merchant ship that was torpedoed by an enemy submarine during the war. Hyatt, who dived into the sea to try to rescue two shipmates, took off his own life jacket to share with them.