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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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For some, Flag Day's about sacrifice
A World War II veteran replays his hardships and explains what the holiday means to him.
By MICHAEL A. MOHAMMED
Published June 15, 2007
Harry Porter, a member of the Scottish Rite Club of Sun City Center, joins a swarm of flag wavers along Memorial Highway during Thursday's Flag Day celebration at the Tampa Scottish Rite Masonic Center.
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
TAMPA - Caitlin Heid's gloved hand clutched the Air Force junior ROTC unit's brass flagpole.
She had posted the colors dozens of times, but her 16-year-old heart still raced under the starched blue uniform.
After all, the Flag Day crowd in the auditorium of the Scottish Rite Masonic Center cared deeply about the ceremony - perhaps none more than David Britt and seven other former prisoners of war who sat among the dozens of veterans in the audience.
"When you go into combat under that flag, it suddenly becomes very important to you," Britt said.
German soldiers had captured Britt in December 1944, during World War II's colossal Battle of the Bulge. He spent "only" 105 days in the brutal work camps, he said.
Producing a plastic folder of photographs, he pointed to one of himself, beefy and grinning in his still-new infantry uniform.
Then he fingered a second picture. The bones in this man's face stood out sharply, creating pools of dark in his cheeks.
But he's smiling.
"That's me when they freed us," Britt said. "I lost 80 pounds."
Another couple weeks, he said, and they would have been dead.
He flips past photos of his buddies, clothes in rags, ribs jutting severely over narrow, wasted bellies. He settles on a grainy image of a couple soldiers sitting on the ground, faces gritty, angry, desperate.
"That's me," he said of the one on the left. That December in 1944, his mother saw this image on a movie screen.
It came from a captured German propaganda reel of their American prisoners.
"She stood up and screamed at the projectionist to stop," Britt said. The show kept going, but afterward his mother got a private screening. The projectionist cut out the frames of her son so that she could have prints made.
Few people at Thursday's celebration, which drew over a thousand people, had a good answer when asked what separated Flag Day from Memorial Day or Veterans day, its patriotic cousins.
The other holidays focus on thanking the men who fought for America and survived, or remembering those who didn't.
For Britt, though, Flag Day is about what those sacrifices accomplished.
"The main thing, I like to go around and look at the sweet little children, and hope they don't have to do what I did," he said.
Later, in the auditorium, the teens completed the flag-posting ceremony. Caitlin, the unit commander, led their clipped march to the stage and slipped the flag into its socket.
They followed with the solemn folding of a second flag. A tall, gaunt boy read from a podium, explaining the symbolic meaning of each of the 12 creases.
Finally, they marched out in file. Those in front and back held old bolt-action rifles. Those in the middle held flags: stars and stripes in front, Air Force standard behind.
In their last move, the gunners knelt. The rifle butts thunked against the floor - a split second apart.
Later, outside the auditorium, the teens chattered. When asked how she thought it went, Caitlin shrugged.
"It could have been better," she said, the steps more in sync, the formation more evenly spaced.
And "the rifles landed at different times, " she said, with a chastising look to the two boys in the unit.
With sheepish smiles, they agreed to practice harder next time.