April 30, 2014 was a special day for WWII POWs who enjoyed a long-awaited day of recognition at the Pentagon. During World War II, American Army Aircorp crews carried out numerous bombing raids over Hitler’s forces in Germany. During those raids, thousands of American planes were shot down. Many Americans died as a result; others were captured and taken prisoner, later incarcerated throughout Germany. There were, however, some who were captured and held in the neutral country of Switzerland.
Any airman held in a minimum security facility after capture in Switzerland who tried to escape and was later caught was sent to Wauwilemoos and imprisoned for upwards of seven months – clearly in violation of international law, whose rule was 30 days. It also violated the Swiss Military Code, whose maximum sentence was 20 days.
Located in Lucerne, Switzerland, 50 miles from the German border, Wauwilermoos was a violent encampment, rampant with disease. The camp commandant was a stern-faced Swiss captain and Nazi sympathizer who did everything in his power to make life a living hell for his American “guests”. A day long train ride was required to reach the compound, where the POWs were greeted by a welcoming committee composed of armed Swiss guards and guard dogs. While being processed into the camp, the POWs were warned by the commandant that any attempt to escape would be severely dealt with.
The commandant and his officers hated Americans and treated the POWs like scum. Though the Swiss referred to the location as a “punishment” camp, it was indeed a concentration camp. The latrine and wash facilities were primitive; no soap, towels or hot water were provided. Those in charge did as they pleased to the prisoners while fearing no recourse.
Punishment handed out by the guards at Wauwilermoos was severe. Solitary confinement was used for the most minor infractions. In one instance, an American prisoner was placed in solitary due to the fact a button was missing from his clothing.
Life at Wauwilermoos was equal to anything experienced in a POW camp within the border of Nazi Germany. Approximately 1,500 American airmen found themselves in Switzerland due to being shot down; 160+ of which were incarcerated at this POW camp.
Surrounded by double rows of barbed wire and guard towers, the compound contained a number of single story wooden barracks. Each building was designed to hold approximately 20 prisoners, but were often occupied by as many as 90 individuals at a time. The barracks contained a small wood-burning stove and wooden bunks filled with lice-infested straw. Mealtime was twice daily and consisted of thin soup which contained slivers of potatoes and cabbage, along with some dark bread. The portion sizes were never enough to alleviate hunger.
Sgt. Jack Dowd was one of the internees at Wauwilermoos. He dealt with a great deal of frustration due to the manner in which prevailing notions of society regarded the Swiss encampment and the reality of the situation. Dowd stated, “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.”
As bad as the physical conditions were at the camp; back home, the mental treatment of the airmen was even worse. Though truly prisoners of war in ever sense of the word, the story of what these American airmen endured at Wauwilermoos was basically ignored for 60 years. Instead, these heroes who answered their country’s call without hesitation returned home to be labeled cowards, seeking the “comfort” of Switzerland in an effort to dodge participating in combat. The fact 70% of those incarcerated in Switzerland made a dedicated effort to escape the camp and return to their units proved the airmen’s loyalty to both their country and their oath. However, when the camp survivors returned stateside following the war, they were denied the honor due them as true prisoners of war.
On April 30, 2014, things changed when a recognition and awards ceremony was held at the Pentagon in their honor. This recognition would have never occurred had it not been for the diligent effort of West Point graduate Army Major Dwight Mears, who was aided by retired Brigadier General Robert Cardenas. Mears’ grandfather, bomber pilot Lt. George Mears, now deceased, was one of those POWs. Major Mears spent 15 years researching and documenting the treatment the incarcerated airmen received in an effort to prove they were every bit as much POWs and American heroes as were those incarcerated within the borders of Nazi Germany.
While a cadet at West Point, Major Mears was contemplating a career as an Army pilot. During a visit with his grandmother, she showed him a pair of old shoes. The leather was cracked and the soles were nearly worn through. He learned from her the reason she still had them was because these were the shoes his grandfather wore when he escaped from the camp in Switzerland where he was incarcerated. Lt. Mears later reached the US lines in France.
His curiosity now piqued, Major Mears wanted to learn more about the events of that time and sought out surviving veterans who had been incarcerated in the same camp as his grandfather. From the crew members he found who served with his grandfather, Major Mears learned a fascinating story.
It was while flying a B-17 near Munich in March 1944; Lt. Mears’ plane was shot down. Lt. Mears was wounded, his controls were shot away and two engines were put out of commission. Despite the problems he faced, Lt. Mears was able to land his crippled aircraft in Zurich, with his entire crew alive.
Major Mears then contacted Swiss authorities for additional information and learned Lt. Mears had been incarcerated in at Wauwilermoos prison camp after he attempted to escape, in an effort to reach Allied forces in France.
Originally Major Mears was on a mission to gain the recognition previously denied his grandfather. In the process, however, he tweaked his plans by realizing a more successful outcome of his efforts would be to gain this well-deserved recognition for all those airmen, both alive and deceased, who had also been POWs in Switzerland.
“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.”
One of the airmen Major Mears met in the process was Lieutenant Colonel James Misuraca. Now 93-years old, Misuraca was drafted during World War II and loved being in the service.
In April 1944, Misuraca was stationed in England and served as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator. It was during his 15th mission the plane’s fuel system was damaged after a bombing run which targeted a German jet engine assembly plant. The damage was sufficient enough to force the aircraft to leave its formation; however, the pilot was able to set it down safely in Switzerland; at that time considered to be a neutral nation. All of those aboard the bomber were taken to a rundown hotel where they were held and interrogated.
Following his interrogation, Misuraca devised an escape plan with an American pilot. This pilot had contacts with the Swiss who said they would help the Americans escape. Leaving the hotel in the middle of the night, the Americans utilized the help of various contacts to board trains and made it to the French border. There, however, they were captured. The men were now marched to jail, then later sent to a detention camp run by a Nazi sympathizer who exerted an extreme amount of cruelty on those who were incarcerated in his facility. Following the war, Switzerland prosecuted the pro-Nazi.
Describing the sympathizer, Misuraca states, “He was not a nice man. This man had no heart. Every day, all I could think of was escape.” He went on to say, “He was a dirty, nasty Nazi sympathizer. The conditions were horrendous in neutral, friendly Switzerland. This was a secret, this place did not exist. It was like a concentration camp.”
Misuraca was held 31 days, suffering from freezing temperatures and starvation. In October 1944, he and two American pilots managed to escape as they cleared two fences and got away from the camp. Though cold and wet, the three Americans came upon a country home where they found friendly individuals who were able to put them in contact with other Americans and linked up with Allied forces in the process of liberating France. The lesson his successful effort taught him was “Never give up!”
Misuraca’s military career continued as he flew 52 combat missions during the Korean War in a B-29. In 1964, he retired from the military and became a stockbroker.
In 2011, Misuraca was denied the opportunity to receive his POW Medal. A revision in the law during 2013, however, changed that for him, and all other POWs who were held in Switzerland during World War II. In March 2014, he received a letter from Deborah Lee James, Secretary of the Air Force, informing him of the change. The letter stated:
“It is my pleasure to inform you that I am awarding you the Prisoner of War Medal for your sacrifice while interned at Wauwilermoos Camp in Switzerland during World War II.”
Army Air Corps First Lieutenant James Mahon, 91, was another of the POWs Mears was able to locate. He and his crew members were also captured and imprisoned in Switzerland. When Lt. Mahon, now residing in a New Hampshire nursing home, learned in early April he would be presented the POW medal, he was delighted and said, “Great! We were happy to be alive so we could come home.”
Mahon was accompanied to the Pentagon ceremony by his son, Patrick. Describing his father’s incarceration, Patrick stated, “The only difference between this camp and the German prison camps was that this one was easier to escape from.” A bombardier and navigator with the 429th Squadron, Lt. Mahon was on a bombing run from Italy to Germany when the bomber crash-landed.
Following his capture, Mahon made two escape attempts, but was caught and imprisoned. On December 29, 1944, Lt. Mahon was able to acquire a forged pass and managed to arrive in Zurich. There he contacted the American consul officials and was escorted to the French border by a guide; after which he returned to Italy.
According to Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Maureen Schumann, prior to the approval of the National Defense Authorization Act in 2013, prisoners incarcerated in Switzerland did not meet the criteria for the POW Medal. At that time, only internees held by a belligerent in a declared conflict, or those held captive by “foreign armed forces hostil to the United States” were awarded the medal.
The National Defense Authorization Act, Section 584, Title 10, Section 1128 revised the original POW law which was first created in 1985. Now the POW Medal would be awarded “to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the armed forces, was held captive under circumstances not covered by [the 1985 statute] but which the Secretary concerned finds were comparable to those circumstances under which persons have generally been held captive by enemy armed forces during periods of armed conflict.”
The tireless efforts made by Army Major Dwight Mears over the course of 15 years played a key role in the change. A graduate of West Point, Major Mears is now an assistant professor of history at the US Military Academy and an Iraq war veteran.
Another of the former captives Major Mears contacted was Technical Sgt. Alva Moss. Moss told a reporter, “Without him, there wouldn’t have been anything done.” Though recognizing Mears’ efforts, Moss retained a level of skepticism, and stated in 2013, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Thankfully, on Wednesday, April 30, 2014, the efforts and patriotism of these American heroes was honored during a ceremony conducted at the Pentagon. Moss and the other surviving POWs who had been held in Switzerland during World War II now received the medal and recognition long denied them.
Major Mears stated, “I’m very happy that the Air Force leadership has supported this. The value to the men is that the government is giving it to them, and what they did was honorable. It will be an honor to celebrate.”
Major Mears was asked by US Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh III to assist him as Welsh made the presentations. Prior to presenting the medals, General Welsh stated, “It’s the kind of courage we read about in books, that people make movies about. But make no mistake about it, these men have that type of courage . . . and boy, did these guys saddle up.”
In all, the Prisoner of War Medal was presented that day to 143 airmen; the vast majority posthumously. Eight recipients were on hand to participate in the ceremony at the Pentagon. They were: Lieutenant Colonel (retired) James I. Misuraca; Major (retired) James V. Moran; First Lieutenant Paul J. Gambaiana; First Lieutenant James F. Mahon; Technical Sergeant Alva H. Moss; Staff Sergeant John M. Fox; Sergeant William G. Blackburn and Sergeant George E. Thursby. During the ceremony, Major Mears was presented one of the medals in honor of his grandfather.
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“Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”