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Soldier gets his due - 60 years later

Local World War II veteran receives medals nearly six decades later

Posted: November 10, 2009 9:32 p.m.
Updated: November 11, 2009 12:49 p.m.

Donald Persens proudly displays a photo of him at the beginning of his service, along with one of this three Purple Heart Medals. Persens waited nearly 60 years to receive his medals.

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World War II veteran Donald “Zadie” Persens, 85, recalls his days as a prisoner of war: He trekked through the jungles of the Philippines for long hours as Japanese soldiers prodded him forward with bayonets.

The Saugus resident and former Army soldier was part of a group of about 300 American soldiers captured in 1943 and sent to a prison camp for about a year-and-a-half with little food, water or medical attention, he said.

“We had to eat the rice from the ground,” Persens said, adding that Japanese soldiers would kick his daily rations of one cup of rice and half cup of water to the floor.

“What was left, the rats ate,” he said. “It was miserable.”

But Persens didn’t get recognition for his service until recently, after family members petitioned the government.

About four years ago, he finally received nine U.S. government-issued medals, including a Prisoner of War Medal, a Philippine Liberation Medal and a Bronze Star Medal — one of the highest military honors.

“I’m glad he got his just due,” said Duke Storey, Persens’ son-in-law. “He’s definitely seen a lot ... He’s earned these.”

Persens said that by the time he and the other prisoners were rescued by American troops, he could not walk because his feet had swollen up from walking in the mud without shoes. The day he was rescued, he was taken in an ambulance to a hospital where he was treated for malnutrition, weight loss and other conditions.

But it was the company of Persens’ fellow servicemen that kept him going through the difficult times.

“As long as we were all together, we felt like we were a little family,” he said, sitting in his living room with a case containing three Purple Heart medals and honorary discharge certificates he received after suffering multiple injuries.

“I sacrificed four to five years of my life,” added Persens, who returned to the Philippines after his treatment and later served in the National Guard. “I thought it would help support the freedom of my country.”

Persens said one of the few things he felt disappointment about was difficulties he experienced in gaining recognition and veterans disability compensation because his paperwork had been lost in a fire at a St. Louis military records building.

Persens said the pain of his war memories is still fresh.

“I still get tears in my eyes from the buddies I’ve lost in the service,” the war veteran said as he choked up and wiped his eyes.

While Persens said he does not agree with the politics of the current war, he supports their decision to sacrifice their lives.

“I feel that they’ve made big progress,” he said. “I’m very proud of them.”

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