Frances Agnes, Bataan Survivor
On this date in 1945, the prisoners of war at the Hiro Hata prison camp in Japan conducted a liberation ceremony; among them 23 year-old Francis Wilfred Agnes. Agnes was born to his namesake, an Irish immigrant, and Pauline Drawczyk in April 1922. The family lived in Haynes, near Hettinger in SW North Dakota, where Francis Sr. was a coal miner. When the Great Depression hit, he took a job with the WPA and moved his family to Wenatchee, Washington.
Young Agnes finished high school there and then enlisted to serve in World War II. He was serving with the 20th Pursuit Squadron in the Philippines when he was captured.
In 2003, U. S. Senator Patty Murray, of Washington State, introduced the Francis Agnes Prisoner of War Benefits Act to help former prisoners of war. In her address to the U. S. Senate, she described Agnes’s experience, saying, “Fran Agnes endured the Bataan Death March – a 100-mile forced march conducted without food or water. During the march, men would drop out of column due to fatigue, dehydration, illness, and injury. This ‘disobedience’ would cause the Japanese guards to rush up, shouting commands in Japanese to get back in the group...
“Many of those failing to obey the order to march were killed instantly by sword-wielding Japanese soldiers who were guarding the men on the march,” Murray said. “Seventy thousand Americans were forced on the Bataan Death March. Only 54,000 made it to the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps that awaited the survivors. Fran turned 20 years old on the Bataan Death March. He survived and was detained at Camp O’Donnell, which was used as a holding station.”
Senator Murray said most prisoners stayed at Camp O’Donnell for about 50 days, but Agnes endured it for six months before being moved to Camp Cabanatuan, where he spent a year working in the hospital to help other POWs survive. From there, Fran was transferred to Hiro Hata, a slave labor camp in Japan. He was 30 miles from Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped. It signaled the end of his 3_ years of captivity.
After the war, Captain Agnes reenlisted with the Air Corps and served two more decades. He became a tireless advocate for veterans; he wanted better health care, better benefits for ex-POWs, compensation from Japanese corporations that benefited from POW labor and more.
He eventually approached Senator Murray, offering to “help her help veterans.” Nearly 30,000 World War II veterans pass away each month, and he was concerned that an important part of history was disappearing. Agnes was also upset the military was providing fewer and fewer honor guards for their funerals. “We found case after case of families all across the country who couldn’t find an honor guard to present a flag with the words, ‘On behalf of a grateful nation’,” said Murray. Even at Arlington National Cemetery.
Murray and Agnes worked with the American Ex-Prisoners of War, of which Fran was national commander. He also chaired the Governor’s Advisory Action Committee in Washington State, and with Senator Murray, they built a coalition of veterans service organizations in support of legislative reforms.
But, the Department of Defense opposed their legislation. Senator Murray said, “With Fran’s encouragement, we set out to address concerns, and ultimately, the DoD agreed to provide honor guards for veteran’s funerals.”
Fran Agnes passed away February 9, 2003; ten months later, key parts of the Francis Agnes Prisoner of War Benefits Act were included in the Veterans Benefits Act, which passed in the Senate and was signed into law.
“Murray Honors Fran Agnes, Washington State Veterans’ Advocate.” Press Release from Senator Patty Murray’s Office. March 20, 2003. <http://murray.senate.gov/news.cfm?id=205260>
Wright, Sarah Anne. “Fran Agnes, World War II POW, dies at 80.” Seattle Times. February 20, 2003. <www.aiipowmia.com/inter23/in022003agnes.html>
“U. S. Senator Patty Murray: Helped POWs Get the Benefits they Deserve.” <http://murray.senate.gov/veterans/vets-accomps.cfm>
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm