CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson University students Katie and Wilson Hawkins have heard tales about their great, great uncle Otis Morgan and his heroics during some of most hellish events of WWII their whole lives. This week, they got to meet a man who owes his life to their family’s legendary ancestor.
As the story goes: Morgan graduated Clemson – then an all-male military college – in 1938 and was commissioned into the Army as a first lieutenant. He deployed to the Philippines just before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
After four months of intense fighting, Morgan was one of the more than 60,000 out-gunned and out-manned American and Filipino soldiers who were ordered to surrender on April 9, 1942 – the largest surrender of American forces in history. The subsequent forced march more than 60 miles north through the searing jungle heat to Japanese prison camps is now known as the Bataan Death March and is considered one of the worst war crimes in history.
Morgan survived the march and found himself in a Japanese prison camp named Camp O’Donnell, only to be rewarded by years of neglect, abuse, and disrespect by his Japanese captors.
But the worst of times can bring out the best in men.
Incredibly, Morgan found two other Clemson alums in Camp O’Donnell: Henry Leitner and Ben Skardon. The three had known each other while students at Clemson and quickly formed a powerful bond as they fought together to survive as prisoners of war, as far away from the gaiety and innocence of college as one could possibly get.
Skardon was the sickest of the three, having been ill with malaria even before the surrender. In the camp he became afflicted with beriberi and diarrhea too and became so weak he could not stand or even feed himself. Morgan and Leitner teamed up to keep Skardon alive; spoon-feeding him, massaging his legs and feet, and washing him as best they could. Skardon had used his natural cunning to keep his gold Clemson ring hidden from their guards, but as he started to slip away Morgan quietly took it and, risking his life, traded it to one of their prison guards for a small chicken and some canned ham.
That food saved Skardon’s life and the story of his ring has become legend for all who pass through Clemson. It is told at every class ring ceremony, often by Skardon himself who for decades has made it a point to attend.
Sadly, Morgan was killed during the tragic bombing of an unmarked Japanese transport ship, the Oryoku Maru, as the enemy tried to secret American POW’s to the Japanese mainland. Skardon was on the same ship, but survived. Leitner succumbed to starvation and disease in a Japanese POW camp in 1945.
Of the three, only Skardon returned from the war. At 101, he lives in a house less than a mile from the Clemson campus and still holds his two friends in reverence for saving his life.
Which brings us back to Katie and Wilson.
They are now Clemson students themselves – Katie a junior studying genetics and Wilson a freshman studying biology. When they found out retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon was not only still alive, but living less than ten minutes from campus, they knew they had to meet him.
“Our cousin Justin went to Clemson too and he came back and told stories about the ring ceremony,” said Katie. “As children our grandmother would tell us Otis’s story when we were little. I heard bits and pieces as a child, but I dreamed of hearing it straight from the source.”
Katie turned to social media and made a comment on Clemson’s official Facebook page about Morgan and her connection to him. One of Skardon’s close friends, Trent Allen, noticed the post and knew he had to facilitate a meeting.
“I saw Katie’s post on Facebook and was blown away that descendants of Otis Morgan were attending Clemson,” said Allen, whose frame and art gallery sits less than five minutes from Skardon’s home. “I knew the colonel would not rest until he met them, because he still holds Otis so close to his heart.”
Last Sunday evening, the strength and kindness of Otis Morgan reached through more than seven decades as Skardon grasped Katie and Wilson’s hands and welcomed them into his home.
“I’ve heard of you since I was a child,” Katie told him. “Otis was my great grandmothers’ little brother.”
Skardon was visibly moved to have the two descendants of his friend there, declaring he could clearly see echoes of Otis in their faces.
“Your presence here means a lot to me,” Skardon told the two siblings in his gentle Southern drawl. “There’s no way I could ever keep in contact with Henry and Otis, except for what I know in my head, but when I see the progeny like you, there’s a certain amount that comes alive. So I have to stare at you a little bit.”
Katie explained that she was named after Otis’ sister; “My name is Kathleen and her name was Kathleen.”
“Well you’re getting closer and closer to my heart,” proclaimed the centenarian.
Skardon told Katie and Wilson how he and Otis were friends at Clemson, long before the war.
“Otis was a ladies’ man.” said Skardon, grinning. “He was a good dancer, president of the Central Dance Association, and very fine looking. He had a poise of seniority – I wanted to say ‘sir’ to him. It was that type of respect.”
Skardon chatted with the Hawkins for more than two hours, regaling them with tales of Clemson and the old days, and of the war, and the march, and surviving in the camps . . . and of a handkerchief.
At some point during their captivity, Skardon recalled, Otis received a rare package through the underground containing a letter from his girlfriend Yolanda, who was being held at the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila. She’d placed a handkerchief spritzed with her perfume inside the envelope.
An air of reverence still settles over Skardon as he describes how the smell of that perfume sent waves of emotion through every barefoot, starving prisoner in the camp.
“He would wrap it up, and we wouldn’t know where he put it,” Skardon said. “We’d say Otis, can we smell the handkerchief? He’d take it out, and nobody would say a word. It was like a wave submerging us. You’d think back to the states, wonder what your family’s doing. I had to be careful or I’d go into a depression. It was that powerful.”
That small handkerchief was such a treasure that Skardon – who taught English at Clemson for 20 years after the war – wrote a poem about it “moments after I first smelled it.”
He shared it with Katie and Wilson:
Yolanda’s Handkerchief, A Fantasy
Would that I might touch the hand, that clasped this bit of lace
Or see though hashish I sup, the face
Which radiates the scent of mystic lands
Surely a Homeric siren, born of aurora on some Elysian field,
Or Helen, beauteous and fair
Else an Egyptian queen with spangled breasts and swaying hips
Or perhaps Diana, enticing and rare
Would that I in some bacchanalian revel
Might meet a maid who stirred me so
Whose perfume and lace all said but go
And leave me swooning, and unsettled
“The best opinion I’ve gotten of that poem is it’s ‘erotic doggerel’,” chuckled Skardon after reading it, but it had clearly moved everyone in the room.
As the evening wore down, Skardon noted how Katie’s brother had not been saying much.
“You’ll have to excuse my relative silence,” Wilson explained. “I’ve waited to meet you for so long I can’t really find words.”
Skardon offered him a few of his own that define what it means to be a member of the Clemson Family.
“My three words for you are: survival, loyalty, faith,” he told Wilson. “I owe Otis everything. He is a cushion between me and everything else, and that bond is sacred. It’s a debt I can never repay, but you can borrow money, have free cigars, I’ll give you a drink . . . just mention his name.”
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