Cornelius Reagan was a basketball star at Florence High School before attending the University of Kentucky. After graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940 and was soon commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. While serving in the South Pacific, Reagan was shot down over Bali but survived. He returned to the skies, only to be shot down again, on February 25, 1942, over the island of Java. Back in Florence, Cornelius’ mother, Bertha Bauers, received a telegram with the news of her son’s death.
Despite receiving official notification and placing an obituary, Bertha quietly held on to hope that her son would be found alive. Her optimism was encouraged through correspondence with a pilot who served with Cornelius; he believed Reagan had successfully exited his disabled plane.
Compounding her grief, Bertha’s husband, Frank, died of a sudden heart attack only seven months after the news of Cornelius’ death. What kept her going was the belief that her son would be found alive. Cornelius Reagan would prove to be as strong as his mother’s faith in him, but good news would have to wait several years.
Just as his friend had written, Reagan deployed his parachute over Japanese-controlled Java, landing safely in a mountain-top rice paddy. He remained undetected for months, surviving on roots, tropical fruit and fish caught from a stolen boat. Everything he ate was raw because a fire would attract attention. He was finally discovered by local villagers and turned over to the occupying Japanese.
In hopes of saving his life, Reagan represented himself as a journalist from Ireland, which was neutral in the war, but he was not a compliant prisoner. When his captors demanded he read propaganda to other prisoners over a public address system, Reagan refused and broke their equipment, bringing him a severe beating and sentence of hard labor. Though his body suffered, a worse punishment followed as he was forced to bury fellow prisoners.
Reagan was moved to an internment camp on the north coast of Java, kept in a near-constant state of hunger while suffering harsh torture. Over three years after he was shot down, the British forces arrived and Cornelius Reagan was rescued. On Cornelius’ 29th birthday, October 5th, 1945, as his mother was preparing to celebrate another year without her son, she received news he was alive and would soon return home.
Cornelius Reagan enjoyed a long career in the military, retiring to Florida in the 1960s. He was awarded a Prisoner of War Medal of Honor in 2010 and passed away at 95 years old in 2011. He and his wife are buried at Arlington Cemetery.
By Hillary Delaney, Local History Associate