William "Howie" Chittenden will turn 100 years old this weekend. He was a prisoner of war during World War II, so he has some perspective on life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Just as WWII was a test of America, this disease today is another test of America," said Chittenden, a Marine who was guarding a U.S. Embassy in China when Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Although U.S. forces were preparing to leave China, it was too late. Japanese forces surrounded their compound and captured the U.S. Marines.
Chittenden would spend nearly four years as a prisoner of war, eating scraps of rat meat to survive and nearing starvation as days passed. But his motto then applies now.
"Hang in there and one day at a time... until this crisis is over," he said, emphasizing that the lessons of yesteryear are true now. "We're in a crisis now and it's going to take one day at a time to get over it."
Chittenden's younger brother, 92-year-old Dick Chittenden, said he has always looked up to Howie and his life experience.
"He's a definitely a hero, of course. My goodness. I look to him as a hero, which he definitely is," said Dick Chittenden.
Whether it's his own brother or younger generations, Howie's life is a lesson to tell.
The head boys basketball coach at St. Francis High School in Wheaton introduced his players to Howie Chittenden.
"I think the kids got the message. We were trying to talk to them about the idea of selfless leadership and service," said Coach Erin Dwyer.
Just days before the pandemic, the basketball team recognized Howie during a ceremony in the gym and met him one-on-one.
"He was really inspiring, just knowing everything he went through," said Sebastian Miller, a sophomore and St. Francis basketball player.
The basketball players, and dozens of others, plan to surprise Howie with a special birthday tribute later this week. They are excited to take part.
"Just being there shows support for him and everything he's gone through," said Brendan Yarusso, a sophomore and St. Francis basketball player.
Support for a man who keeps teaching all of us.
"Part of being American is having resiliency and having faith in the future and faith in each other," said Howie Chittenden. "And I think that's what's going to help us win this war, like the other wars before this."
American prisoner of war shares WWII lessons that apply to COVID-19 pandemic