The death of Martin James Govednik at age 77 cannot pass
without a tribute to his bravery and to the bravery of his generation. Every
time another World War II veteran leaves us, we lose a piece of our nation's
soul. The legacies of these heroes are the freedoms we enjoy today, but they
are also the cherished children and grandchildren they leave behind. If Govednik
had not survived his torturous eight months in a Japanese prisoner of war
camp, he would not have returned home and married LaVerne, and they would
not have their five children, all residents of greater Northeast Tarrant County.
These grown children are a wonderful monument to the life of the quiet retired
Air Force lieutenant who moved to Fort Worth in 1966 for a job with General
But his personal story is one that Govednik, like many of
his peers, was reluctant to share for so long. Until three years ago, his
family never knew how strong a man Govednik really was. "He didn't talk
about it much," daughter Terry says. "I wondered a lot of times
what he was thinking about," recalls his wife, LaVerne. "He was
incredibly self-reliant," son Frank says. "It's a blessing and a
curse, because he kept so many things to himself." A few years ago, daughter
Carol persuade her father to write about his memories for a military magazine.
Govednik worked on his story for months. It wasn't easy. The nightmares returned,
though in the end, writing was therapy for a man who never went to a therapist.
When his story, Solitary Sojourn in Singapore, was published
in 1994, Govednik's children learned the terrible details of their father's
imprisonment. Govednik was the radar operator on the Postville Express, a
B-29 bomber assigned to destroy enemy naval dry docks on Singapore Island.
The bombing mission was a success, but afterward Japanese gunners hit the
plane and the right wing fell off. All the men bailed out with parachutes. Govednik landed near the burning fuselage. None of
his companions was nearby, so he took off in the jungle. Within two days,
he was captured by the Japanese and taken to Outram Road Prison, where he
spent eight months in solitary confinement.
His diet consisted of gruel with a fish head in it and powdered
milk. His weight dropped to 85 pounds. From the start, Govednik stood up to
his captors with quiet toughness, giving only his name, rank and serial number. He turned large humiliations into small victories.
Once when he was caught tapping messages in Morse code to the prisoner in
the next cell, "a guard came into my cell brandishing a two handed, samurai
sword," he wrote. "He cowered me onto the wooden bed and put the
point of the sword at my throat. He threatened that I could be beheaded if
my behavior didn't improve. He said we were the worst prisoners he ever saw.
I took it as a compliment."
Govednik fought his depression with ingenious methods. "I
developed a routine," he wrote. "I would pace around my cell 25
paces clockwise, stop for a few minutes and look out the metal grill at the
bottom of the door. Then pace around counterclockwise for 25 paces."
He battled his desire to commit suicide by using fish bones to carve intricate
mathematical equations on his wall. He prayed. And
he dreamed about food.
"I would wake up with the side of my face and the boards
that were my bed wet with saliva," he wrote. In September 1945, near
the time of his scheduled execution, the war had ended, and he was released
to the Allies. "A nurse came to my berth and asked me if I wanted a back
rub," he wrote. "I told her to go ahead if she could find some back
muscles to rub. She rolled me over and stroked her warm, soft, gentle fingers
up and down my spinal column. "I was going home.
I fell asleep."
Govednik's magazine story ended there, but when he returned
to America, he met LaVerne, married her and raised five children. He taught
mathematics and physics in the Fort Worth school district for 12 years. The
only quirk Govednik carried with him, his family says, was that, wherever
he went, he carried an extra sandwich. He wanted to be prepared. "People
forget that if it weren't for those guys who fought in the war, our whole
country could be changed," daughter Carol says. "It might not even
be our government here. It could be something else." Govednik
was able to pass his legacy to his children: Martin Jr. of Colleyville, Tony
of north Fort Worth, Frank of Flower Mound, Terry of Bedford and Carol of
These children will pass their father's deeds down to Govednik's
grandchildren, eight more young residents of Northeast Tarrant: Michelle,
Lara, Karla, Cara, Michael, Matthew, Derek and Helena. That's why the death
last week of Martin James Govednik cannot pass without paying tribute to his
bravery and also to the bravery of his generation. We
owe them everything.