WWII vets’ ‘Catch-22’ may be untangled: Were these men Deserters or POW in Switzerland?

 
 
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For over 60 years, the real stories of these men were kept in the dark and their “hero-ness” were either ignored or ridiculed.

According to many, including military officials and veteran associations, these men do not deserve to be called Prisoners of War as they were deserters trying to escape WWII. They have been labeled cowards.

However, the fates of the 12 remaining veterans in this group is about to change – the government has recently expressed its desire to, at last, recognize these airmen as PoWs.

These individuals are the ‘wronged heroes’ of Switzerland prison camp Wauwilermoos.

The Truth about Wauwilermoos

Wauwilermoos was a prison camp in Switzerland, in fact one of the many in the country. In 1944 a malicious suggestion from the US consul in Switzerland that the US crew who were imprisoned in the country were trying to dodge combat when they were arrested started the  erroneous misconceptions about the prisoners in Wauwilermoos. That and how the reports were used in a literary masterpiece in the form of one of the most critically acclaimed novels in American literature proved to be the demise of the said US WWII soldiers.

Though future reports had tried to straightened the crooked belief, it remained undone.

Fact is, Wauwilermoos was a sorry place for a prison compound. It was run by a Nazi sympathizer and its designed was made specifically for PoWs who had tried to escape other prison camps in Switzerland.

A US military memo in 1944 had revealed that conditions in the said camp were “worse than in enemy prison camps.” American prisoners in Wauwilermoos had only straw tossed on wooden boards for beds. Their meals consisted of watered-down soups and scorched stale bread. The latrines were very unsanitary – they were just trenches and the cleaning method was hosing down every few weeks. Lice and rats were everywhere and the men got sick with boils due to the unsanitary conditions they were in. They also lost weight, mostly about 40 pounds.

This was not all. Wauwilermoos prisoners suffered in the hands of the authority who ran it – Nazi-leaning Swiss Army Capt. Andre Beguin. Prior to being assigned in Wauwilermoos, Capt. Beguin was a member of the National Union and resided in Germany. He was also dismissed from the Swiss Army in 1937 for various reasons one of which was wearing a Nazi uniform in the country and intelligence reports about his pro-Nazi views.

As the head of the prison camp, he castigated American PoWs by subjecting them to cruel punishments and solitary confinements for minor infractions. The men were also imprisoned a total of 7 months, a clear direct violation of international law which allowed only 30 days confinement.

However, no matter how the US crewmen suffered in the desperate Wauwilermoos prison compound, the fact that Switzerland was a neutral country made them unfit to be WWII veterans. They were branded as nothing but deserters.

Government’s Change of Heart

Recently, the US government announced that they are going to recognize Wauwilermoos prisoners as true Prisoners of War and will give them their long due Prisoner of War Medals. Of the over a hundred Wauwilermoos prisoners, only 12 are left alive and one of them is Illinois native Alva Moss, an 89-year-old retired grain farmer.

“It makes me feel good,” Moss said in his living room one recent afternoon, “like somebody’s recognized that we deserved this.”

The recognition is all because of the efforts done by Dwight Mears, a West point assistant professor whose deceased grandfather was also a Wauwilermoos prisoner during WWII.

It was his continuous work, delving deeper into the Wauwilermoos PoWs case, his constant appeals to government offices and his filling up paperworks for his grandfather and the countless others that paid off – the Air Force secretary was expected to sign the final approval of the medals on Sept. 15 at the time of writing.

“It occurred to me that my grandfather probably didn’t care much about the medal, because it wasn’t even created until 1985. For those living, however, it was a powerful symbol of what they went through. It’s vindicating that the law was passed,” Mears said. “I’m gratified that the Air Force is honoring the legacy of these men,” he said.

Moss is grateful, too, but added that he will only believe about the medals when he is really given one.

“Without him,” Moss said, “there wouldn’t have been anything done. But I’ll believe it when I see it.”

-Based on features from The Seattle Times, The Christian Science Monitor and Swiss Internees