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A large American flag, tethered between fire engines from the Southaven and Horn Lake fire departments, drapes the entrance to the Landers Center Thursday as more than 400 people gathered to commemorate the 6th annual Winn and Annie Ruth Brown Veterans Day Appreciation Breakfast.

At age 97, World War II survivor Olin Pickens can still recall the shivering cold of a Nazi prison camp.

He can still feel the hard ache of hunger from being forced to work in a slave labor camp for the German war machine. As a prisoner of war, Pickens learned more about freedom and liberty in a dark dungeon than all the history books that have ever been written.

In fact, Pickens is a piece of living history himself.

Pickens was the keynote speaker at the 6th Annual Winn and Annie Ruth Brown Veterans' Day Appreciation Breakfast at Landers Center on Thursday. Winn Brown helped organize Horn Lake's first fire department and his wife Annie Ruth would go on to help establish the Historic DeSoto Foundation.

Their grandson William Walker Brown performed a special solo in honor of DeSoto County's veterans and the Horn Lake High School Choir sang the national anthem. During a poignant moment, Horn Lake Fire Chief David Linville made a special presentation to the widow of fallen firefighter Michael Casey.

Horn Lake Mayor Allen Latimer acted as master of ceremonies for the event which drew more than 400 people.

Many came to hear Pickens' captivating story. Only 20 at the time, Pickens joined the Army in 1942. He volunteered before being drafted. After he completed his basic training, Pickens was placed in the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion and sent to the Mediterranean.

On Jan. 26, 1943, his unit began approaching North Africa’s front line. There they dug in and soon received orders for what Pickens describes as a “suicide mission.”

"I went over there expecting to die but I didn't expect to be a POW," Pickens said.

After a pivotal battle there on the North African front, Pickens found himself on his own, using the color of the sand as camouflage. Pickens stumbled across a "slit trench" and crawled in. He was able to pull cactus and brush over the narrow trench to hide his whereabouts.

"The next morning I saw my cover move and my heart started pounding," Pickens said.

An Arab nomad discovered his hideaway but gave away his position to the Nazis.

"Soon there were 12 German soldiers standing there with bayonets fixed and all of them had guns which were fixed on me," Pickens said. "I came out cold and scared to death, shaking like a leaf. The Arab said, "I don't hate you but if I don't help them they will cut off my head and kill my whole family."

Pickens said he was turned over to the Germans for the equivalent of one dollar.

"I had lost my freedom, my dignity and my pride but I had my faith. They couldn't take that away from me," Pickens said.

Pickens said his faith sustained him through his two years of captivity, a time in which he was nearly starved to death, forced to work at hard labor, and finally a risky flight to freedom that led to punishment and re-imprisonment.

"When I saw the Statue of Liberty it spoke to me," Pickens said. "I know what it said to me. What does it say to you?"

Other events were also held including an event honoring veterans at Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto on Thursday and an annual veterans appreciation luncheon hosted by the City of Southaven on Friday.

At Southaven's event at the City of Southaven's Safe Room, Andy Pouncey with the Tennessee Great War Commission Board said America's sacrifice will never be forgotten.

"There are many people over there who remember the service you, our veterans provided to the country, both then and now," Pouncey said. "Country and family matter. Many people remember even as far back as 100 years ago. Thank you for your service and each day may we always remember your service to this great country."

The weeklong series of veterans appreciation events will be capped Monday by the Veterans Day Parade on the historic DeSoto County Square in Hernando at 10 a.m.

The parade will include Pickens and veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East wars. A total of 105 American flags will line the parade route.

Hernando Mayor Tom Ferguson applauded his public works crew for removing the flags during stormy weather and then quickly reinstalling them in time for the parade.

"I think it says a lot about how we feel about our veterans," Ferguson said.

Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.

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