COLUMBIA — As the 32nd annual POW/MIA Recognition Day Ceremony came to a close Friday afternoon, Sgt. Ralph Kalberloh stood up from his seat among the audience and immediately found himself surrounded.
"I just wanted to thank you," a woman in an Army sweater said as she grasped Kalberloh’s hand. "Thank you so much."
A bearded man in full camouflage approached Kalberloh with his right hand extended, thanking him for his service. "I really appreciate it," he said, looking intensely at Kalberloh.
Kalberloh was among six former prisoners of war and their families recognized at the ceremony at Truman Veterans Hospital, which featured remarks from Maj. Gen. Annette Sobel and hospital director Sallie Houser-Hanfelder.
"Even during their darkest hours, these men demonstrated remarkable courage and unwavering devotion to their country," Houser-Hanfelder said.
Stephen Richardson, chief of the health administration service, read out the names of 38 men still missing in action as of August.
Houser-Hanfelder encouraged those present to remember the people who never came back and the waiting families who hope for news.
"We haven’t forgotten, and neither should you," she said.
Kalberloh, 84, is commander of the Central Missouri Ex-POW Organization. He came from Jefferson City to attend the event. His memory of his military service is vivid and specific.
He joined the Air Force against his mother’s wishes on July 21, 1943, his 18th birthday. Kalberloh recalled three reasons for joining: He wanted to wear "a cocky hat"; he wanted to ride to work, rather than march; and he intended to someday go to college and become a fighter pilot.
When he was 19, Kalberloh was sent to Germany to fight in World War II as a tail gunner. On his first mission on Feb. 3, 1945, he found himself in the largest air raid of the war up until that point, when the U.S. 8th Air Force bombed Berlin.
While flying over the North Sea on the way back to a rendezvous point, Kalberloh’s plane got hit and one of its engines began smoking.
He said the life expectancy of someone shot down over the North Sea was 30 minutes due to the cold. His pilot made the decision to turn around and head back to Germany; once they were over land again, the plan was to bail out of the airplane.
"I definitely didn’t want to somersault out of that little door," Kalberloh said.
He made his way from the tail to the front of the plane and jumped out hand in hand with a friend. All he managed to grab before he jumped was an escape kit and a Hershey’s chocolate bar.
As soon as he hit the ground, the first thought that came to his mind was, "I have to get away." After avoiding capture for five days, Kalberloh finally gave in to hunger and turned himself in to a German man and his wife, who sent him by train to Frankfurt. He spent three days in a cell there before a German colonel brought him out for interrogation.
"He asked me, 'Why are you fighting us? Your last name is Kalberloh — you’re German,'"" Kalberloh said. "He was really a pretty nice guy, but he wanted me to invite him to my family’s farm after the war. I told him, 'You’re going to have to win, because I’m not going to invite you.'"
In April 1945, Kalberloh was transferred to a camp in Nuremberg and later marched to POW camp Stalag VII-A in Moosburg, 97 miles away.
On April 2 — what Kalberloh called the best day of his life — the camp was liberated by Gen. George Patton.
"First we saw a tank come through," Kalberloh said, his voice faltering and his eyes welling up. "Then Patton came riding up in a jeep behind it. It still makes me cry."