There were several times during World War II that Thomas Grove thought he was going to die, both before and after his capture by the forces of Nazi Germany.
Instead, the 88-year-old Columbia resident survived deployment to the Pacific Theater, combat in the Battle of the Bulge, and several months in a German prisoner of war camp to speak Friday at Shaw Air Force Base in honor of his colleagues who weren't so lucky.
"Your grandfathers saved me in combat," Grove told an audience of present-day Army and Air Force personnel, many of them 60 years his junior. "Their Air Force planes flew over my head, and I would wave at them."
Grove was the keynote speaker at a ceremony marking Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Recognition Day, the culmination of 24 hours of events on base memorializing those Americans who went off to fight and didn't make it home.
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The first POW/MIA Recognition Day was held in 1984 to pay tribute to service members who suffered as prisoners of war and those stuck in the limbo of being labeled "missing in action."
More than 83,000 Americans remain missing, but never confirmed killed, from World War II and subsequent conflicts.
Friday's ceremony beside the Fallen Airmen Memorial at Shaw's Memorial Lake saw the end of a 24-hour run that started the day before, with runners in 30-minute shifts carrying the POW/MIA flag.
Simultaneously, a flag detail read the names of prisoners and the missing beside the Ninth Air Force flag pole.
Grove is one of the few Americans with first-hand experience of what it means to be held as a prisoner of war. He was a 20-year-old private when his unit was captured during the push into Germany in January 1945.
"They stripped us naked, threw all our clothes in a pile, poured gas on them and burned them," Grove said.
He was only able to keep his shoes in the harsh European winter because he convinced the German who captured him they were too small for the enemy soldier to confiscate for his own use.
"Now my feet are cold even in August," he said, "but I have feet."
Grove and 86 fellow prisoners were loaded into a railroad boxcar with space to hold half as many people, then pulled across Germany while Allied planes bombed the railway tracks. The prisoners came to call it a "chapel on wheels" because of the frightened hymns they sang.
For months in a prison camp, Grove slept on a cobblestone floor, suffered from lice and subsisted on meager rations. To this day, when he pours raisins on his breakfast cereal, Grove says he sees enough food to feed 20 men in the camp.
When Germany fell to the Allies in the spring, Grove's camp was liberated, and "we kissed those American tanks like they were American girls."
"There was a chaplain who told us, 'you made a lot of promises to God in there. Now don't forget to keep them,'" he said.
When Grove returned home to Pennsylvania (to a mother who never knew during the months he was missing that he was a prisoner), he took the chaplain's advice to heart. He attended Bible college and spent the following decades as a pastor and hospital chaplain.
"I knew God was with me all the time," he said. "He'll see you through anything. He saw me through the Pacific, and he saw me all the way through Europe."