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Mason, war hero, honored in Oak Harbor

Sitting ramrod straight in his finest suit, Milton Littke still presented a striking military image during a luncheon in his honor earlier this month hosted by Whidby Island Masonic Lodge.

As with many aging veterans of World War II, one could not guess Littke’s torturous and adventurous story just by looking at him. Who would have thought that over 60 years ago, he was trying to escape the Japanese army in the jungle of the Philippines, and when captured spent years being treated inhumanely in a prisoner of war camp in Japan.

As told by information provided by his fellow Masons, Littke enlisted in the Navy just prior to the advent of the war. At the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor he was in the Philippine Islands attached to a Navy squadron, flying as a crewman in PBY Catalina aircraft.

When the Japanese attacked the Philippines, Littke averted capture temporarily by escaping into the jungle where he survived by scavenging whatever nature could provide and on what he could pilfer from the natives. But in April he was shot and captured by the Japanese. The bullet grazed his chin and was not disabling. It would be nearly 50 years before he received a Purple Heart award because there were no witnesses to the shooting and no medical record to substantiate the event.

After capture, Littke was imprisoned at Manila for some time before being transported to Japan in one of the infamous “hell ships.” These were Japanese merchant vessels that did not display any markings indicating they were being used to transport prisoners. Consequently, many were targeted and sunk by U.S. forces. Treatment about the ships was inhumane. The men were deprived of their shoes, crammed into the holds and had to fight like animals over what little food was tossed to them. There was no sanitation of any kind, and many died in the miserable conditions.

The few who survived were placed in Japanese camps and used as slave labor. Littke was forced to work in a mine. Food was meager, clothing scarce and medical attention went begging. Winters were severe. Littke tells of eating vegetation from bushes and weeds as they were marched to and from the mines. Beatings were routine and death was a common occurrence. He recalls having obtained the shin bone of a horse that would be boiled over and over again to extract whatever broth could be obtained.

After the war, Littke was emaciated. Following recovery, he eventually ended up at NAS Tillamook, Ore., where he was admitted into the Masonic Lodge in 1950.

He left a girlfriend behind when he went to war, but she stuck with him through the years when it was not known if he was dead or alive. He and Mary Ellen married, raised a family and remained active in the Masonic community. His last few years before retirement were spent at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. The couple have been involved in Eastern Star, Amaranth and Rainbow activities, and Milton Littke served as organist of Whidby Island Lodge No. 15 for many years. He was awarded the title of Honorary Past Master.

Many of his Masonic friends attended the luncheon at Home Place. While his health is not good, he is being cared for by his wife, and his old shipmates and Masonic brothers look in on him. Masons filled the dining hall when his 60-year pin was presented by James Vannice, a fellow Mason and Oak Harbor resident.

Vannice estimated that those in attendance represented 330 years of Masonry.

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