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WWII POW Gene Newton dies; funeral Wednesday

On April 2, 2007, the York County Council meeting was packed with people fuming over a proposed dump for construction waste. People argued over broken bricks. Nobody wanted the bricks next door.

It seemed like such a big deal at the time. In the middle of the room sat one older guy, 83 years old and silent, until the council recognized him with a resolution.

The man was one reason there are public meetings - and arguments using wonderful free speech - in America and much of the world.

The man, humble, rarely talked about his 91 days as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II. He didn't tell strangers of only eating a handful of stolen potatoes, of three months of marches through snow and ice without any shoes, of losing almost half his body weight. He didn't like to talk of not yielding to the Nazis who did not allow free speech or free anything.

The proclamation was read, thanking him for bringing a South Carolina POW conference to Rock Hill. That room filled with upset people became silent, forgetting for a moment about broken bricks.

Gene Newton stood to collect the proclamation. The whole room of people then stood and clapped for him.

Gene Newton died Friday at 86. Today - at a burial at 1 p.m. Laurelwood Cemetery and at a 2 p.m. memorial at Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church - Newton gets his ovation.

He deserves it.

"Gene Newton was a fine fella," said Chester's Pete Wylie, 86. "Just like me, a prisoner in the war. Only four months for me.

"We survived it, though. But we are getting old. There aren't many of us left anymore."

Gene Newton, who lived most of his adult life in Rock Hill, grew up in nearby Shelby, N.C.. He didn't get drafted during World War II, but his brother did. So Newton quit college at N.C. State and enlisted.

"If his brother was going, he was going," said Sandy Newton, one of Gene Newton's children. "About broke my grandmother's heart. Her husband was already dead, and the boys went off to war."

After years in combat, Newton was aboard a plane that got shot up, and all aboard except the pilot bailed out over Germany. Somehow, the pilot maneuvered the airplane back to safety, but the men were captured.

For three months, Newton survived. He beat frostbite until the Allies liberated the prisoners.

"The problem was, my father and another guy had run into a little town right after the Germans fled and before the Allies arrived," said Sandy Newton. "They found some canned peaches, and ate so much they got sick.

"They came back and everybody was gone. It took two weeks for him to be found again."

As a prisoner of war, none of Newton's family knew he was alive. They only found out, months later.

Late one night in 1945, Newton was dropped off by a bus in the Shelby town square. He sat on a bench for hours. An old geezer then arrived at dawn, a courthouse square regular in the days when downtowns had courthouse regulars who held informal court on benches.

"You are that Newton boy!" the man called out. "Get home and see your momma! We all thought you was gone forever."

But Gene Newton didn't want to show up in the dark "and give his mother a heart attack," Sandy Newton said. Gene Newton, who had walked partly across Europe as a prisoner, walked the two miles home that morning and hugged his mother.

Lillian Newton had no heart attack. She gave her son a hug.

Only in recent years did Newton speak about his ordeal. Most POWs were the same, hiding what they endured.

"It was only three months," Newton told me the last time I interviewed him.

Wylie, that tough Chester man, said he was a prisoner "only four months."

All these guys would say "only" concerning their captivity time.

Dempsey McGowan of Rock Hill, who died last year, would say "only 874 days." McGowan weighed 78 pounds after "only" 874 days in a Japanese prison camp.

The late L.J. Vincent of Lancaster County used to say "only 21 months." He was in two camps, after escaping once and being caught again to face unspeakable abuse, for almost two years.

Newton finished college and served other prisoners just like him after his retirement from the insurance business, including a long stretch as state commander of the POW organization.

21-gun salute

Today's services will include the Rolling Thunder POW-MIA group, veterans service organizations and a 21-gun salute.

"Gene Newton knew that we shared something awful, yet something special," said T.J. Martin of York, a Korean War POW who spent more than two years in captivity. "He was decent and humble. He was one of us."

One of you, yes, T.J., but not one of the rest of us.

The prisoners of war from World War II and Korea and Vietnam, they are special and different. Plainly, tougher than the rest of us. Those who survived did not quit.

They asked for nothing after they were freed. They came home, months or years after capture with no parades or commendations such as Newton humbly received more than 60 years after his liberation.

They just hugged their mommas, and went to work.