Marine who spent 4 years as POW approaches 100th birthday
He doesn't consider himself a hero.
He's the only one who doesn't.
Wheaton resident William Howard "Howie" Chittenden, who chugged two gallons of water just to reach the weight limit to join the Marines in 1939, spent nearly four years in prisoner of war camps during World War II.
Upon his return home, he graduated in three years from the University of Notre Dame, started a 32-year career at Sears, and raised two sons and a daughter with his wife of 59 years, Patricia.
On Saturday, he'll turn 100.
Chittenden was among 203 Marines stationed in North China who were forced to surrender to Japanese forces on Dec. 8, 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He is the only one of those Marines still living.
"I don't consider myself a hero. In my opinion, the heroes are all buried in foreign soil, or at sea. The real heroes didn't come home," he said this week from his home in the Wyndemere senior living center in Wheaton.
"I want to share any honor that's given to me with my buddies. I want to share anything accorded to me with the other 202 comrades that are no longer living," he said.
And he will be honored.
Vick Lombardo, a former Marine major now with the FBI, has worked with Wyndemere to assemble a tribute to Chittenden on his birthday, being very mindful of social distancing.
"Being a Marine myself, I deeply respect his service of over four years in a POW camp," Lombardo said. "But more so than that, I respect the fact that he came home, raised a family, and he didn't feel sorry for himself. He went on with his life and was a very productive member of society,"
"I think the most interesting thing, with all this COVID-19 stuff, one of the things that amazes me about him is how does he manage to keep such a positive attitude?" said Lombardo, who first encountered Chittenden in his work with the Travis Manion Foundation.
"He makes light of whatever challenges are in his life, and honestly, I think that's one reason he made it to 100."
Connecting with the St. Francis High School boys basketball team as a mentor in character development, Lombardo arranged for Chittenden to speak to the team in February at Wyndemere.
"When he talked to the kids, the thing they took away, right away, is he's 99 years old and he's still sharp as a whip," said St. Francis coach Erin Dwyer.
"In his last message to the kids, he was using the word 'respect.' ... If you just treat people with respect, things seem to work themselves out."
Chittenden, who also went by "Chick," used grit, will and faith to survive the Pacific theater in World War II.
A corporal who had volunteered for U.S. Embassy security duty in China, Chittenden's detachment was captured in Peking (now Beijing) three days before it was scheduled to vacate the embassy.
Instead of attending the U.S. Naval Academy or Marine officer's training as he had planned, Chittenden endured two POW camps in China and three in Japan before being liberated on Sept. 2, 1945.
Performing hard labor building roads and working in steel factories while subsisting on minimal portions of food and exposed to extreme cold, by the time of his release the 5-foot, 6-inch Chittenden weighed 115 pounds.
He was discharged from service in February 1946 as a platoon sergeant. He published a book about his service in 1995.
"Let's say I prayed a lot," said Chittenden, a graduate of York High School in Elmhurst. "I think my faith helped me get through a lot of that, and it's helped me get through this whole 100 years."
The son of an Army lieutenant who served in France during World War I and one of three siblings who served in World War II -- his brother, Dick, lives in Chicago and will be 93 on May 19 -- Chittenden sent two sons, both now deceased, through Wheaton North High School. His daughter, Peggy, lives in Gloucester, Virginia. His wife, Patricia, died in 2008.
"I'm happy with my life. I've been blessed in many ways and I try to appreciate it. I've been very fortunate with good friends, I think that's important," Chittenden said.
"I don't mean to be corny, but I truly believe that a man can be wealthy even if he doesn't have a lot of money. He can be wealthy if he has good friends. I know that sounds corny, but I believe it."