Brig. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, 509th Bomb Wing commander, presents a shadow box to retired Chief Master Sgt. Charles Sibert, at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. Sibert was held in a prisoner of war camp during World War II for more than 500 days. Right, after he returned to the U.S., Sibert sent his then-girlfriend, Julie, a telegram: 'I'm ready to get married. How about you?' (Staff Sgt. Nick Wilson/Air Force)
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Brig. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, 509th Bomb Wing commander, presents a shadow box to retired Chief Master Sgt. Charles Sibert, at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. Sibert was held in a prisoner of war camp during World War II for more than 500 days. Right, after he returned to the U.S., Sibert sent his then-girlfriend, Julie, a telegram: 'I'm ready to get married. How about you?' (Photo courtesy of the Sibert family)
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Charlie Sibert thought he’d been summoned to Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., late last month to tell his story again.
Nearly five months earlier, he was the guest of honor at the base’s annual day of remembrance for prisoners of war and those missing in action.
That’s when Sibert first regaled Whiteman’s commander and top enlisted leader with stories of the 548 days he spent as a POW in World War II. Sibert, 89, showed Brig. Gen. Thomas Bussiere and Chief Master Sgt. Lee Barr his decades-old discharge papers. He also mentioned he’d never received his medals.
Bussiere and Barr told Sibert they’d take care of that.
On Jan. 24, they invited him back to Whiteman — not to share his war stories but to present him with the medals in a surprise ceremony.
Sibert didn’t talk about his wartime experiences until about a decade ago, said his granddaughter, Tech. Sgt. Kimberly Stone, 442nd Maintenance Group training manager at Whiteman.
When Stone returned home to Missouri after basic training, Sibert asked her to don her dress blues and accompany him to a local play about a POW camp. On the drive home, Sibert compared the production to his own experiences in Nazi Germany so many years before.
He’d enlisted in the Army Air Corps days before his 19th birthday in November 1942. While he was in basic training in Florida, Sibert saw a notice on a bulletin board for aerial gunners and volunteered.
He was taken prisoner less than a year later, on Oct. 14, 1943, when his B-17 was shot down over Germany. It was Sibert’s second mission.
In the car with his granddaughter 60 years later, Sibert told Stone how the German fighter dipped its wing at him — rather than take him out — as he parachuted out of the doomed bomber. He told her about the lice, the rotten rutabaga soup and the rare Red Cross package that made its way to the prisoners. He told her how they’d listened to war news on a radio pieced together with stolen parts and how they’d tried, unsuccessfully, to tunnel out of the camp. And he told Stone how he’d sent a telegram to his sweetheart after his return to the U.S. in 1945: “I’m ready to get married,” it said. “How about you?”
Charlie and Julie Sibert have been together ever since.
Sibert retired from the military in 1964 after 21 years of service; he went to work for the U.S. Postal Service for another 16 years before a heart attack sent him into permanent retirement.
Sibert was proud when his granddaughter followed his path into the Air Force, and he made the trip to San Antonio to attend Stone’s graduation from basic training. But Stone only ever knew Sibert as an easygoing retiree and doting grandfather who took her on vacations in summer — until that play.
“Then I got it. I understood why he was the way he was, why he’s so bullheaded and opinionated. He fought so hard for his country. He fought for that,” Stone said.
On Sept. 4, Sibert showed up for the day of remembrance in a bright blue baseball cap with “Ex-POW” stitched on it.
Airmen would take turns walking or running for 24 hours in honor of service members like Sibert.
When Sibert said he hadn’t received his medals, “it didn’t seem right to walk away from that,” Barr said. “I just felt really strongly we needed to do something for him. That’s the least we can do. Here is a living, breathing piece of history walking before us. We needed to do the best we could for him.”
The medals came packaged in Styrofoam, Barr said. He couldn’t imagine handing them over like that. So Whiteman’s leaders had a shadow box created for Sibert with a flag, his medals and an inscription of the circumstances of his time as a prisoner of war.
Among the more than dozen medals: the POW Medal, the Victory Medal, the State of Missouri Medal, the European Theater of Operations Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and the Korean Service Medal.
Whiteman officials invited him back, presumably so Bussiere could meet with Sibert again before the commander left for his next assignment.
He arrived to a room full of chief master sergeants — the same rank as Sibert — and the former and present commanders of 8th Air Force. Stone was there, and so were three of Sibert’s four children.
When Bussiere gave him the shadow box a few minutes later, Stone said, Sibert grew emotional.
“He’s a very humble person,” Stone said. “He doesn’t want recognition. The chief and the general made him feel like a hero that day.”