Vickroy: Palos man on mission to help widows of POWs
By Donna Vickroy email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy October 3, 2012 8:02PM
Thomas Jundanian, Greater Chicago Chapter Commander of the American Ex-Prisoners of War, laughs while talking about his life at his office at 7600 College Drive in Palos Heights, IL on Tuesday September 25, 2012. The 91-year-old World War Two veteran has made it his mission to make sure all POWs and their widows get the benefits they deserve. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 5, 2012 6:13AM
When we last visited him, Thomas Jundanian had just chased a car into the parking lot of the Palos Heights Jewel-Osco store.
Though he worried he’d startle the female driver, he knew he had good reason.
Jundanian, now “91 and a half,” had noticed the woman’s car bore prisoner-of-war license plates. There was a chance she was the widow of a POW.
“I approached her with my card — gosh, I hope she didn’t think I was coming on to her — and asked if she was getting any (veterans) benefits,” he said. She was not.
A couple of months later, Jundanian received a thank-you card from the woman’s daughter.
Jundanian, a POW for five months during World War II, admits he is a man on a mission and, as such, must take risks.
Many widows of POWs have no idea they are entitled to a monthly stipend from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, he said. Since becoming commander of the Greater Chicago Area Chapter of former POWs, Jundanian has been determined to get the word out.
So far he’s helped 11 women collect the $1,100-plus tax-free monthly stipend. One year’s worth can be collected retroactively.
He has a pile of thank-you letters to show for his efforts.
“It’s a great feeling, being able to help someone. It’s nice to know we are not forgotten,” he said.
Captured by Germans
Jundanian spent Thanksgiving of 1944 convoying through southern Belgium. His infantry unit replaced another outfit in a cannon company along a front that was too sparsely guarded, he said. For several weeks, things were pretty quiet. The men ate their rations. They moved the guns’ position as ordered. They expected to be home by Christmas.
Then, on Dec. 16, Jundanian said, “All hell broke loose.”
More than a million men fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the final offensive launched by the Germans. Jundanian was among some 15,000 Allied troops, mostly Americans, taken prisoner during the month-long siege.
“We were on the road, marching, for almost a week,” Jundanian said. They spent Christmas Day at an interim camp in Bonn, Germany.
After that, they were put into boxcars, given some bread and cheese, and shipped to Stalag IVB, a very large prison camp for enlisted men, he said.
During that time, he remembers being impressed by the British prisoners’ resourcefulness.
“They had to have their tea, so they figured out a way to make fire pots out of soup cans,” he said. “They were incredibly creative. We had a good relationship.”
At one point, Jundanian was assigned to a group of 20 prisoners who were relocated to another town to work in a welding shop.
During this period, the prisoners were housed in a guarded apartment.
“Every day, they gave us a loaf of bread. I was assigned to slice the loaf into 20 even pieces,” he said. “Then we drew cards to see who got to choose first. You know who chose last? The guy who did the cutting.”
Jundanian remained a prisoner until the war in Europe ended in late April 1945.
Back in the States, Jundanian, who was born in Massachusetts, earned an engineering degree from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. That’s also where he got his pilot’s license, although he likes to tell people he learned to fly in the infantry.
One day, while in the Army, he visited an airfield and, on a whim, signed up for a flying lesson. He was hooked.
He was living in Hammond when he met his wife, Florence, through a relationship his brother had developed with her father, an Oriental rug dealer.
“We were always looking to meet other people of Armenian descent. We knew rug dealers were mostly Armenian,” he said.
The Jundanians had three children. Their daughter, Diane, a doctor who once saved Jundanian’s life, died several years ago of cancer. Florence also died of cancer in 2008.
It’s the inexplicable that haunts Jundanian.
“Why does my daughter, a doctor who helped so many people, have to die so young and here I am 91?” he said.
One day a few years ago, Jundanian attended a meeting of former POWs at the Summit Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. The commander had just died, and the secretary announced they were looking for a replacement.
“I’m not sure how it happened. I raised my hand to ask a question, and the next thing I know, I’m commander of the Greater Chicago Area Chapter of former POWs,” he said. “For life.”
He strives to make the meetings, which take place every other month, meaningful. At a recent gathering, a guest gave the attendees an update on the Manteno and Quincy veterans homes.
“I want members to know what kinds of facilities are available, should they ever have to go to one,” he said.
He also devotes considerable time to tracking down widows of POWs.
“Nobody else is looking for them, to tell them they’re owed benefits,” he said.
So Jundanian does what he must. In addition to being featured in this newspaper, he was interviewed for a local cable access show, an episode viewable on YouTube. He’s also reaching out to local politicians.
“Once they find out what my mission is and that there’s nothing in it for me, they seem interested,” he said.
He has no idea how many POW widows are out there. He’d like to get the names of all those who’ve applied for POW license plates from the secretary of state’s office, but that information is private, he said. So he reaches out to the media.
“I need publicity,” he said.
His only other recourse is to chase license plates.
“But,” he said, “I’m getting up there, you know.”
For more information about
benefits available to widows of former POWs, contact Jundanian at (708) 404-6862.