On Dec. 20, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Miami awarded U.S. Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Cornelius Reagan, now 95, the Prisoner of War Medal — 65 years after Reagan was released by the Japanese weighing just 92 pounds.
Reagan’s P-40 aircraft was shot down over the Indonesia jungle during World War II, survived for six months on his wits, tropical fruit, and the flesh of raw animals. Then Japanese forces found him and locked him away in a series of internment camps for more than three years.
“I thought to myself, if I can just survive, I’ll be able to get home,” a beaming Reagan said at the ceremony, as he stood proudly with his new medal pinned to the lapel of his gray suit.
To gentle laughter, Reagan said he has been recognized before, with a presidential citation and a Purple Heart for being killed in action. Because he was missing so long, the military had presumed Reagan was dead — and told his mother that during the war.
“We’re here to set the record straight,” Japhet Rivera, the VA’s associate director, said. “After so many years, he’s here to receive the medal he earned.”
The medal is awarded to anyone who, while serving with the U.S. armed forces, was taken prisoner and held captive after April 5, 1917.
“The service member must also have either been engaged in action against an enemy or involved in military operations involving conflict with an opposing force,” the Miami VA said in a statement.
Reagan, an only child who was born in Lexington, Ky., joined the Army Air Corps cadets in 1940, after college at the University of Kentucky.
A P-40 plane he was piloting solo was shot down over the island of Java on March 1, 1942. He landed in a rice paddy on a mountain.
Traveling by night in a stolen boat, Reagan told The Miami Herald in 2002, he survived on tropical fruit, roots and animals that he ate raw because he could not light a fire.
“I thought maybe if I got to the ocean, I could maybe steal a boat and get to Australia,” he said.
Eventually, natives found Reagan and turned him over to the Japanese. To hide that he was an American soldier, Reagan told his captors he was a war correspondent from Ireland, a country that remained neutral in the conflict.
As a war prisoner, Reagan was shuffled between several internment camps, slept on dirt floors and was subjected to severe dietary restrictions. He was also put on burial detail.
At one camp, he was directed to read propaganda material over a public address system, and when he refused he was severely beaten and sent to Kempeitai for a trial, charged with sabotage. At his court martial, he was found guilty and sentenced to a life of hard labor.
Reagan, who learned to speak Japanese and Dutch during his years in captivity, said he felt lucky. Many of the 55 or so other prisoners on trial that day were given an immediate death sentence.
Soon after his sentencing, Reagan was transferred to a political prison located on the north coast of Java. He experienced forms of torture, he said, including having bamboo sticks placed under his fingernails and being forced to drink water “until you almost explode.”
Reagan was finally released from confinement and rescued by the British military in September 1945 as the war ended. Reagan stayed in the military and retired to Miami with his family in 1961.
“My bedtime stories were his escapades in the island of Java, in installments, evading the Japanese,” said Patrick Reagan of Weston, 63, the older of Reagan’s two sons who attended Monday’s ceremony.
Reagan, who lives in Cutler Bay, said he is still haunted sometimes by memories of his time as a war prisoner. “Many times I have nightmares of the mental treatment that I had,” he said.
He receives assistance at the VA and has told his story to military groups and high school students.
“This is an incredible story, sir,” Rivera, the VA associate director, told Reagan. ”And probably one that would be great for a movie.”