Lamar Rodgers certainly has a story to share about his life, which is nearing a century.
Recently celebrating his 99th birthday, the Bentonia native reflected over key points in his life. From living through the Great Depression to surviving being a prisoner of war in World War II to earning a living both in and out of the services…Lamar Rodgers can cover it all.
Rodgers was born in May of 1922 to John and Estelle Rodgers. He was one of four boys and a sister who lived in what he considered an upper middle-class life.
“My siblings and I were mean as junkyard dogs though,” he admits, with a smile. “My sister was the meanest of us all.”
Rodgers said his father earned a decent living, and he and his family were comfortable in rural Yazoo County. But then 1929 fell upon the family, and the Great Depression changed their direction.
“Daddy lost everything in 1929,” Rodgers said. “He kind of started drifting then, but he managed to keep a job.”
The Rodgers family moved around from Yazoo City to Pickens to other small communities. Rodgers completed his education, but he lacked two credits to graduate from college before he joined the armed forces.
“It was the band director,” Rodgers said, with a grin. “He got upset because I liked baseball more than beating on a drum. I wouldn’t graduate until 1946 when I returned home from the war.”
World War II hit the Rodgers home with quite an impact. Rodgers said he immediately signed up to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. At 19 years old, he grew impatient with the status of his application. And by the time, he got word to report to the Navy, he was already an airman.
“I wanted to help my country in the war so I got in there on May 8, 1942,” he said. “As soon as Hitler heard I was coming, he should have quit, but he didn’t.”
Rodgers traveled all over the country for training. But he admits his family was hitchhikers, and he saw a lot more beyond his hometown while he was growing up.
“We weren’t homebodies growing up,” he said. “Traveling all over the place was nothing new to me.”
Two months following training, Rodgers was in Africa, where he would serve as a top turret gunner on a B-52 bomber. Protecting his crew form enemy aircraft, he remembered the first time he saw smoke and realized it was coming from their plane.
“Of course, it was scary,” he said. “When you really started think about how you could fight a war with nothing but a thin piece of aluminum between you and the enemy.”
After 35 successful missions, Rodgers and his crew were shot down over Italy. Their plane went down into the Mediterranean Sea, where they managed to float along for about a day. Rodgers hit the water at 2:13 p.m. because that was when his watch stopped on impact.
The Germans captured Rodgers and his crew, which included five crewmen and one photographer. They were then taken to the infamous Stalag 17 prison camp.
“I was there for 21 months,” Rodgers said. “I can remember a chaplain saying that we fought with pride and dignity, and that we walked across a corner of hell. And we did.”
Sleeping on a flea-ridden straw mattress, Rodgers went from 170 pounds to 114 pounds on a diet that consisted of dehydrated cabbage soup and a few potato peels they stole from the Germans.
“That soup was the worst,” Rodgers said. “At first, you ate around the worms in it. But then you got so hungry, you started eating the worms too.”
Aside from the food, the prisoners were tortured by vicious dogs. Rodgers said he still doesn’t like German Shepherds or Doberman Pinschers to this day.
Rodgers’ camp was evacuated on April 8, 1945 as the Russians were drawing near. He and other prisoners were forced to walk 288 miles before they were turned loose in the woods. Their diet consisted of tree bark then.
Rodgers and his fellow POWs were liberated on May 3, 1945. Rodgers said he was happy to be returning home, but he admits it was hard to adjust.
“I can remember complaining about not having food at home, and how we didn’t have food at the camp,” he said. “But then I realized they had been going without food at home too. I never said another word about the camp to my parents again after that.”
Rodgers soon got married to Robbie Bishop, and they had three children. He reenlisted in 1947 and served until he retired in 1964. He even worked for International Harvester for about 17 years.
Rodgers said he spent his life raising his family, camping and traveling, reading hundreds of books and even reuniting with his fellow servicemen. He remains proud of the military today, and he applauds the next generation as they continue their own journeys.
“I love America, and there is no other place like it,” he said. “Our military now is doing a great job, and we should give them credit. You have to have faith in the Lord and people.”
And how does he feel about celebrating 99 years?
“I don’t know,” he said, with a smile. “I’ve never been here before.”