A modern soldier looks back at an ancient battle

July 04, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

What does the history of a battle in ancient Greece have to do with modern America? A great deal, if you believe James Warner.

Warner, who lives in Washington County, earned his credibility as an authority on military matters the hard way - he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five-and-a-half years.,

He recently shared those experiences with the Republican Club of Washington County. It's safe to say he had the audience's rapt attention.

Warner began his talk not with words of Vietnam, but with an account of the battle of Thermopolaye, which took place in 480 B.C.


Warner described the historian Herodotus' account of how the Greeks, who had been victorious against the Persians at Marathon, were almost caught napping when the Persians decided to avenge that defeat.

The Persians, under Xerxes, prepared well for battle, Warner said, building supply depots along the route between Persia and Greece.

But then the Persians came to Thermopylae and its narrow mountain pass. Warner said that about 300 Spartans, residents of a warrior state in Greece, defended the route.

The 300 put their shields together as the advancing Persians came to the pass, Warner said. The Spartans pushed 10,000 of the Persians off the cliff and might have continued to do so, except that a traitor, Ephialtes, showed the Persians a way around the Spartans' line.

But the battle prevented the Persians from conquering mainland Greece, Warner said, and so preserved the foundations of Western civilization.

Warner said his own journey into battle began in college, which he said he decided was "not for me."

He enlisted in the Navy, but despite hearing old-timers' advice never to volunteer, he volunteered for flight training.

"I decided I would like to do my part and the Marines were desperately short of pilots for the F-4," he said.]

The F-4 was a fine plane, Warner said, with a few exceptions. The back-up hydraulic lines that controlled the plane were right next to the primary lines, which meant that if one set were hit, it was likely the other would be, too.

Due to an error by the pilot of his plane, Warner was shot down, and ended up carrying the fellow who'd gotten him into trouble for six weeks, after the man broke his ankle.

Both were captured and Warner's prison ordeal began.

He quoted a friend, Chuck Boyd, who said that real fear is what you feel when you hear keys outside the door and it's not time for meals.

Warner said he was interrogated and tortured by a dim-witted soldier who was convinced he was trying to escape.

Finally, he said he made up a story about how he was planning to steal an entrenching tool, break through the roof's terra cotta tiles, jump over the wall and escape.

Because such an effort would make so much noise, Warner said he reasoned that the man's superiors would ridicule him for bring them such a tale.

That didn't happen, he said, and he later learned that prisoners in another camp had indeed escaped through the roof of their hut.

Warner said he looks back on his experiences not as a defeat, but as part of an action that prevented the other countries in Southeast Asia from coming under communist domination.

Like Thermoplaye, we lost that battle, but prevented something worse from happening, he said.

"We will never get rest from the duty to resist evil. Every morning, there is a bugle that calls us to duty and everything we do should reflect the glory of God," he said.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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