America's forgotten war heroes
Every war has its forgotten heroes. Even though Pfc. Jessica Lynch was recently awarded a well-deserved POW medal for her captivity in Iraq, there are countless other Americans who have been pushed into the sidelines of history.
Over the past six years, I have met and interviewed scores of American airmen who suffered imprisonment in service to their country but have never received the recognition and respect that they deserve. The case of these particular World War II veterans is particularly poignant. Not only did these airmen endure wartime captivity in sometimes brutal conditions; postwar they had to endure disbelief, and sometimes disdain, from their own country.
From 1943 through 1945, 1,516 American airmen were imprisoned in Switzerland in internment camps after being shot down or forced down by Swiss fighters or antiaircraft batteries. Some were captured after intentionally landing. The Swiss claimed they honored international law in their arrest of POWs, but they applied the law in a grossly unfair manner to the benefit of the Nazis. No German airmen were interned, and Nazi aircraft were allowed to land safely at Swiss airfields, refuel, and depart.
Conditions in most of the internment sites were generally adequate for Americans who obeyed their captors' orders - but it was a far different story for those who did their patriotic duty and attempted to escape. American servicemen who ventured past a camp's posted limits, or tried to get across the border into occupied France, risked being shot by Swiss guards and sent to penitentiary camps commanded by Nazi sympathizers. The treatment there was as harsh - in some cases harsher - than at POW camps across the border in Germany.
Wauwilermoos, in Lucerne, Switzerland, 50 miles from Germany, was violentand rampant with disease. Double rows of barbed wire and guard towers surrounded the prison compound; barracks built to hold a maximum of 20 men usually held 90.
American airmen who were caught trying escape from Switzerland were imprisoned here for as long as seven months - a clear violation of international law, which limited such sentences to 30 days. It even violated the Swiss military code, which mandated maximum sentences of 20 days.
The guards at Wauwilermoos routinely handed out severe punishment, in the form of solitary confinement, for minor infractions. One American prisoner was sent to solitary for a missing button.
These men were truly prisoners of war, but their story has remained in darkness for nearly 60 years. Only recently have these former POWs been willing and able to discuss their experience. And yet these men, who answered without hesitation or reservation when their country called, found themselves maligned when they returned home. They were called cowards and accused of dodging combat by going to Switzerland.
Even during the war, some American military leaders actually encouraged the idea that these airmen landed in pristine condition with more than enough fuel to carry them home, or that crews had stowed bags packed with vacation wear.
These were ludicrous accusations. An investigation launched during the war concluded that the Flying Fortresses and Liberators that landed in Switzerland did so because of damage or loss of fuel too severe to enable them to make it back to England. The number of men who tried to escape and rejoin their units - nearly 70 percent - clearly shows the American airmen's loyalty to their country.
Yet despite the inspection teams and postwar briefings, the story has remained in the margins, and these men have been all but forgotten.
American veterans' groups have largely ignored the former internees, viewing them as little better than deserters. The US government itself did not officially acknowledge the existence of the camp at Wauwilermoos until 1996.
Until his death last year, Sgt. Jack Dowd, a former internee, was frustrated by the gulf between the reality of Wauwilermoos and the prevailing notions about conditions there.
He said: "There wasn't too much food and we'd fight over who got the largest piece of bread. It was dirty and miserable. It was swampland. You got off the train and you sank a foot. It was as bad as the toughest camp in Germany, but at least there were bunks in Germany. The US government ignored it."
The US government still ignores it. The Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny POW status to the majority of these heroes.
These men deserve the medical and financial benefits owed to someone who sacrificed for this nation. And they deserve the honor and respect accorded to other Americans who have been prisoners of war.
They deserve something else as well: their rightful place in history.
• Cathryn J. Prince is author of 'Shot from the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland.'