Leaders Have Vision, Refuse to be Defeated and Rarely Lose Hope

An American Hero

Next week we’ll travel to Virginia to celebrate the birthday of one of the finest examples of a leader I know. My father-in-law, George Rogers, will be 99. His corporate career has many unique features and accomplishments. Yet, it was his early life that helped forge his amazing character and strong sense of purpose.

In 1941 most Americans were enlisting in the service. George, a young 20-something had grown up fatherless and quite poor. He signed up to go to the Philippines, because the recruiter called it, “The poor man’s paradise.” Arriving in October, he and six others were assigned to the 4th Separate Chemical Company. Unfortunately, George was the only one of the seven to survive.

After the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor the Japanese landed the next day near Luzon in the Philippines. In January the allied troops retreated to Manila and then to Bataan under heavy fire. On April 9, 1942, after fierce fighting, General Edward King finally surrendered.

Bataan Death March

The surviving forces, numbering about 76,000 Americans and Filipinos, were forced to march over 100 kilometers in what became known as the Bataan Death March. The trip lasted several days in scorching heat, with no planned food or water stops. Since the troops had been on limited rations, they were already weak and tired. Men carried sick friends but as they fell, they’d be shot, stabbed by bayonets or run over by tanks. By the end of the march, 10,000 men had died. Immediately, survivors were loaded into steel boxcars and shipped to Camp O’Donnell with temperatures inside reaching 120 degrees.

George and the other prisoners were eventually shipped to Japan and forced into hard labor in a steel mill. During 3 1/2 years in prison camp, George was on a starvation diet that left his 6’3″ frame weighing only 85 pounds. In addition to the hard work, he endured beatings, humiliation, Malaria, Dry Beriberi, dysentery, burying 1,600 Americans and much more at the hands of his captors.

Faith and Vision Fuel Survival

Nevertheless, despite these circumstances; he wasn’t defeated and he never lost hope. George told me he survived in captivity, because of two things. First, he believed in God. That faith helped him understand that despite his circumstances, God cared about George. He still had a purpose for him, and He would see George through this one day at a time. The confidence and strong sense of self this gave him, allowed George to be optimistic instead of bitter and defeated. He noted that prisoners who lacked this sense of transcending purpose were quickly overwhelmed and often died.

Second, those beliefs helped George create a vision, which transcended his present circumstances and encouraged him to plan for the future. After the war he’d go home, date and then marry Barbara Randall. He’d graduate from St. Louis University, secure a good paying job and help raise a large family. George pondered that vision and discussed it with a friend. The meaning it provided helped sustain him:

“You must have something to look forward to,” said George. “We had nothing. Our news was sometimes a year old, and we never got mail. Having something to look forward to was helpful. We talked about the Randall girls. I was going to marry Barbara”.

Before being released to civilian life, George and the rest of the prisoners received a pep talk of sorts, from a team of American doctors.

“They said I’d probably be dead at 45,” And, “Don’t bother with college or think about having children.” They said my eyes, teeth and hair would all be gone. Well they were wrong! I graduated with honors in three years. I married Barbara…had five wonderful children…and 14 grandkids. I still have my teeth, eyes and hair… I just took the positive approach.

George’s experience offers a powerful illustration of how faith combined with a strong sense of purpose and clear vision can sustain leaders in the midst of very bleak circumstances. They certainly helped George achieve a fulfilling life and career that continued into his early 90s.

Happy Birthday Pop

He certainly is my hero and I honor and thank him today for his leadership and sacrificial service to our country, for his unconditional love and example to his family and for his inspirational walk through life…Happy Birthday Pop!!