Woman of War: Former POW finds happiness

By Jennifer Lee Preyss

Smitten with Texas life and a budding romance with third-year medical student beau Winton Coleman, Eileen Aaron is the most content she's been since before the war.

Her malnourished bones are filled out from regular, nutritious mealtimes.

Her previously gaunt face is rosy in color and symptoms of wet beriberi from being held for three years as a prisoner of war at Santo Tomas internment camp have long ceased.

Life in Galveston is peaceful for the 21-year-old, even without her sister, Madge, and her husband, Earl Cobb, who have returned to Arkansas with their baby Bay.

Eileen's eldest sister, Jean, who married Ned Parrish - an American she met and fell in love with in the prison camp - decides to settle in Virginia to be near Ned's family.

For Eileen and brother, Jack, however, their one-year American visa is approaching expiration.

Deportation looms and returning home is a fearsome prospect - her home in the Philippines is decimated, and friends and family are dispersed across the seas.

To wed or return to Manila

American government letters become more frequent in the mail, informing Eileen she must prepare to evacuate the states.

The news of imminent deportation doesn't sit well with Eileen or Winton, who insists she not return to a war-torn city with no family and where sorrowful memories of her mother Margaret's death in the camp will be too much to handle alone.

Eileen and her family are notified that Jack is moving to Canada before the visa expires while their father, John Aaron, sails to England to return to British soil.

Winton refuses to accept his girlfriend may be deported. So he does the honorable thing and asks for her hand in marriage.

Winton proposes marriage in November 1946, and they're married three months later on Feb. 7.

On the day of her wedding, Eileen wears a dark, two-piece suit and white gloves and holds a small bouquet of carnations.

Winton's carnation boutonniere matches her floral hand piece.

She's having a baby

A month into marriage, Eileen becomes pregnant with her daughter, Margaret.

Winton continues medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and the two prepare for parenthood.

To help pay the bills while in medical school, Winton works at a bingo parlor.

Eileen works as long as she can but eventually leaves her job as a secretary to focus on nesting for the baby.

Yet the ghosts of the prison camp return.

Winton insists his new bride be screened at the hospital for a well-mother examination because even though funds are short, he feels his wife deserves some peace of mind during pregnancy.

Her test results reveal Eileen has tuberculosis, a contagious lung disease she contracted while working as a nurse's aide in the TB ward of the prison camp hospital.

Quarantine is suggested for most patients because TB can spread and potentially cause death.

After Winton reviews her medical charts with Eileen's primary doctors, she is instructed she must deliver Margaret and spend the next nine months in containment, away from her baby, unable to nurse her, hold her or watch her baby's face change and grow each day.

The war steals from Eileen the joy of her firstborn's first months.

Margaret is sent to be cared for by Winton's parents in Vanderbilt near Victoria. By the time Eileen finishes convalescing, baby Margaret is bonded to her grandmother. When mother and daughter are reunited, the baby wants little to do with Eileen.

The young mother is sad and hurt. Her hatred of the Japanese and what they stole from her is solidified for the rest of her life.

Leaving Galveston

After Winton's graduation from medical school in 1948, he chooses a path as a general practitioner and opens a small medical office in Shiner.

Because Winton was never deployed in World War II and the Army paid for his medical schooling, he is required to serve another two years with the Army and deploy to West Germany to serve out his due in the Korean War working as a military doctor.

Before he departs, Eileen discovers she is pregnant with their second child and will be alone for the delivery in Shiner when her husband leaves for war.

A few months after Winton's deployment, Eileen's American citizenship is approved in May 1951.

When it is time, the same doctor who delivered Margaret in Galveston four years earlier delivers Dorothy Coleman on Oct. 16, 1951.

Winton, still away on duty, misses her birth.

While he's away at war, Eileen's postwar anxieties begin to increase, including a fear that Winton will not come home.

The thought of losing another family member, someone she loves immensely, is a terrifying possibility, especially when she already has lost her mother.

She vows she'll never again return to Manila or live in a large city that would be or could become a target for future invasions of international enemies.

And at nighttime, when the babies are sleeping, she allows herself to believe Winton will not be harmed and will return to her safely.

When Dorothy is 6 months old in April 1952, Eileen packs the children's bags for a few days and boards a train from San Antonio to New York.

Winton is released from military duties, and she wants to meet him in the city when he arrives back in the states.

Eileen cries for much of the journey, worried he won't love her after his time in war.

In her experience, war changes people and breaks them down.

Winton had rescued her and given her a new life in America.

What if he didn't love her anymore? With her British temperament, she keeps most of these feelings to herself, but that only intensifies her fears.

Those fears melt away after Winton returns and shows again how much he adores her.

Settling in Victoria

As Winton's parents age, the Colemans make a decision to move to Victoria to be closer to his parents in Vanderbilt.

Victoria is a decently sized city in the 1950s, with a population of about 30,000, but it is still small enough for Eileen to feel safe.

The couple moves to Victoria in spring 1953 and rent a two-bedroom postwar house near the Patti Welder School.

Without much money, the family enjoys spending some evenings outside in the backyard listening to stadium cheers from Friday night football games.

Winton begins to set up a new medical practice and rents an office on North Retama Street.

Eileen never again works a paying job, opting instead to stay at home and look after the children.

Needing a car for the office, Winton borrows $500 from brother-in-law Earl Cobb to purchase a 1948 army-green Dodge for the family.

Next door to the medical office, a new church is forming, Grace Presbyterian, which attracts many young, Christian couples.

Eileen and Winton become members at the church, and she spends much of her free time volunteering for church events and serving the congregation.

She soon becomes pregnant again and delivers her first boy, Lee Coleman, on March 5, 1954. Another daughter, Sally, is born Aug. 30, 1955, and another son, Michael, who is born on Lee's birthday, March 5, 1959.

The growing family buys a house in Victoria at 2804 N. Arroyo Drive. Here, Eileen is finally content, spending her entire life raising children and grandchildren.

She never updates the home's kitchen or bathrooms, forever encapsulating the 1950s charm of the property.

In the rear bedroom, Eileen's General Electric 1940s radio plays constantly, usually while she is ironing or working on chores in the home.

Social life

As a doctor's wife, Eileen is regularly invited to social events in Victoria and becomes a member of the Junior League, Bronte Club of Victoria and Victoria, Goliad, Jackson Counties Medical Association Auxiliary and Alliance.

She is also a member of the Parent Teacher Association for more than 20 years.

By day, she's a mother and wife, but her free time is dedicated to her volunteerism.

Though she doesn't hide her past as a prisoner of war in the Philippines with her friends, no one knows the affects that experience held over her life for so many years.

Eileen is strict with her children about the amount of time they can spend taking a bath. They also are required to not waste food; anything that is served is eaten.

She also has a way of quietly communicating with her children. With a harsh look, she lets her children know they need to immediately become quiet and settle down.

"She told me later it was because if anything like Santo Tomas ever happened again, she wanted to be sure her children would be quiet. Sometimes, children in the camp had to be quiet right away and not make a fuss because they could be in danger," recalls her daughter, Margaret Barney.

The family is also never allowed to purchase Japanese vehicles or electronic devices. And no favorable words are ever exchanged about the Japanese, either in serious tones or jest.

And any time there is an international crisis, such as the Cold War or the increase of ISIS in the Middle East, Eileen fears the worst case scenario.

Another miracle

For many years in Victoria, Eileen and Winton spend time in social circles with other doctors and their wives.

They attend dinners and events as groups and arrange play dates for their children.

They spend much time with Dr. Charles Borchers, another family doctor in Victoria, because their children are about the same age.

Eileen and Borchers are familiar with each other's World War II stories: She knows he served in the Army during the war, and he knows she was an internee at Santo Tomas.

One night, Borchers invites Eileen over to his home, and they spend hours at the kitchen table going through photos of the war and sharing war stories.

As Eileen comes upon one of Borchers' photos, she excitedly proclaims, "There I am!"

Borchers takes the photo and a closer look.

"Eileen, there I am also," Borchers said, according to his daughter, Charla Borchers Leon, who was sitting at the kitchen table with her father.

They stare at the photo in silence for several long moments. Eileen's trademark stoicism is broken as her eyes well with tears.

Borchers joins her.

The two realize in a moment that forever bonded them as friends that Borchers was one of the American First Cavalry fighters who liberated Santo Tomas.

"All I can say is thank you. You saved my life," Eileen says.

"Eileen, you are welcome. I was just doing my job," he responds.

How these two could end up in Victoria and become friends is nothing short of a miracle, Charla says.

Carrying on

Eileen's life is littered with more tragedy, though she always carries herself through.

Winton dies in 1990 from bladder cancer, and her youngest son Michael later dies in 2013 from multiple cancer diagnoses.

Eileen is a widow for 24 years.

When Winton dies, she mourns his passing for five years.

It is the first time in her life she has time to grieve the war, the loss of her mother, the death of her husband and the pre-war identity she shed when she became a prisoner of war.

To ease her pain, Eileen journals her feelings, telling herself not to indulge in self-pity.

She insists her family and friends continue to address her as Mrs. Winton Lee Coleman so others would not forget him.

Her family can tell she is leaving the mourning stage when she allows others to address her mail using Eileen Coleman.

Throughout the years, her children all offer to take her back to Manila to visit the Santo Tomas university that became a prison camp and the street where her childhood home once sat.

Eileen always refuses. She never returns to the Philippines.

In her mind, she wants it to remain as it was when she was a girl. Returning home to a postwar Manila, even decades later, would inevitably ruin those memories.

One of the constant pains she carries with her through life is the anger she holds at the Japanese guards for not letting her attend her mother's funeral.

Forgiveness

Eileen's later years were riddled with bouts of breast cancer, which killed her mother.

She survived each time and remained in relatively good health otherwise.

But earlier this year, the cancer crept up again as it did with her mother, Margaret, when she was in the camp.

Eileen was lucky. Her mother died at 44 years old; Eileen was approaching her 91st birthday.

A few months before her death, she moved to Fort Worth in June to live with her daughter, Dorothy.

Her home on Arroyo Drive sat empty, waiting for her to return.

She realizes she's never returning to Victoria.

The more the cancer metastasized, Eileen decided she needed to meet with a pastor and let go of the anger in her heart she'd been harboring for the Japanese for more than 70 years.

Her daughters, Margaret, Sally and Dorothy, spent the last few days with her and were privy to a moment when Eileen asked them to leave so she could speak privately with her pastor.

Two days later, Eileen Aaron Coleman died Oct. 9, a month before her 91st birthday.

She died from breast cancer during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The Rev. Dan Fultz, who knew Eileen for about a decade of 51 years at Grace Presbyterian Church in Victoria, presided over her funeral at the church.

Liz eulogized her grandmother to a packed congregation of friends and family who traveled from all over the country to attend her funeral in Victoria.

"I was very lucky to have known her. Her life was such an inspiration, and she was a brave woman to have survived through it all," her granddaughter said.

The family has closure knowing she didn't take her anger of internment camp to the grave.

A few days before her death, Eileen made a final confession of forgiveness.

"She told me if I have to die, then I need to finally forgive the Japanese," Margaret said. "I think she finally did. I think she got her closure."


Continue Reading: Woman of War: British student becomes POW