The Air Force approved the medals following tireless, 15-year fight of one the imprisoned aviator’s grandsons: Army Maj. Dwight Mears, an assistant professor of history at West Point, Iraq war veteran and the grandson of Lt. George Mears, upper left. (Courtesy: The Mears Family)

From 1943 through 1945, around 1750 American airmen were imprisoned by Switzerland in “internment” camps after being shot down or forced down by Swiss fighters or anti-aircraft batteries. Some were captured after intentionally landing. The Swiss claimed they honored international law in their arrest of POWs, but the Swiss Military applied the law in a grossly unfair manner to the benefit of the Nazis. While allied airmen were all interned, no German airmen were ever interned, and Nazi aircraft were allowed to land safely at Swiss airfields, refuel, and depart.

Allied Airmen, however, suffered a very different treatment.  Conditions in most of the internment sites – often Swiss hotels – were generally adequate for Americans who obeyed their captors’ orders – but it was a completely different story for those 10% or so who did their patriotic duty and attempted to escape and return to their units at war. American servicemen who ventured past their boundaries or tried to get across the border into occupied France risked being shot by Swiss guards and sent to Wauwilermoos prison camp near Lucerne,run by André Béguin, a man who did not attempt to hide his pro-Nazi sympathies. The treatment there was as harsh – in some cases much harsher – than at POW camps across the border in Germany.  This was a world very different from the internment they had left in an attempt to rejoin their ranks.

The Hague convention mandated a maximum of 20 days for attempted escape from internment in a neutral country; many were kept at Wauwilermoos prison camp for nearly a year, suffering terribly at the hands of the pro-Nazi commandant; worse than allied airmen were being treated in the Nazi POW camps in Germany.

Wauwilermoos, in Lucerne, Switzerland, 50 miles from Germany, was violent and 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.

Lieutenant Colonel James Misuraca remembers:

“I was interrogated by the tyrant, Captain Béguin, who was a disgrace to the Swiss military. I was mistreated by being forced to live in a wooden hut inadequately heated by one wood burning stove. Slept in a wooden bunk filled with lice-infested straw.

“Rations consisting of thin soup with slivers of potatoes and cabbage and dark bread. Our hunger was never alleviated. The guards were coarse and crude. The prison camp was surrounded by double barbed wire with guard towers and guard dogs patrolling.  No soap or water; latrine was primitive.”

Dan Culler, another US Airman, was sent to Wauwilermoos as well, and locked up with four eastern European detainees, who raped him a number of times.

“Four of them held me down while the other did his thing, all taking turns. I was bleeding all over. I was from a small town in Indiana and had never had a sexual relationship.”

After reporting his raped, Culler was ridiculed by prison commanders and sent back to the barracks for more of the same.

Eventually falling ill with tuberculosis, Culler was sent to the hospital, where he tried to escape again with the help of the American military attaché. He remembers traveling to Geneva to meet three other US aviators at a restaurant. From there, a taxi took the four men to the border marked by a barbed-wire fence. “We fled under a hail of bullets that were fired by Swiss soldiers without warning, before meeting some French smugglers,” explained Culler.

A B-17 bomber that landed in Geneva in April 1944. Most of its crew was interned, while a gunner was hospitalized (Archives fédérales, Berne)

Many US Airmen managed to escape.  Upon return to their units, they were surprise to find that their reception was quite cold.  They were treated as little more than deserters, both by fellow servicemen and back home in the states.  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.

Today, the US Airmen of finally get their due. Nearly 150 USAAF airmen will receive their Prisoner of War medals; most posthumously.  However, they are now officially recognized as having been prisoners of war, rather than “guests” of a neutral country during wartime.

We owe them our gratitude, our respect and our apologies, too.

War is hell.