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World War II internment camp survivors honored 70 years later

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Nine U.S. Army Air Forces airmen who were interned at the Wauwillermoos Camp in Switzerland seven decades ago finally were honored with the Prisoner of War Medal, April 30.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III presented the awards to eight surviving men and to the family of a Ninth airman in a ceremony at the Pentagon.

In 1943 and 1944, Welsh said, the men were “barely old enough to grow facial hair” while flying bombing missions into the heart of Nazi Germany, fully aware of the fear and peril awaiting them, when they were shot down over Switzerland.

“During that time period, for these men and their bomber crewmates, the chance of surviving a combat tour without being shot down, captured or killed was about 25 percent – a 1-in-4 chance of survival,” Welsh noted. Aircraft loss rates of 30 to 50 percent, he added, were not uncommon on missions against the most well-defended targets.

“It’s the kind of courage we read about in books, that people make movies about and that these humble, grateful survivors praise on their fallen comrades, but rarely seem to recognize in themselves,” Welsh said. “But make no mistake about it -- these men have that kind of courage.”

But the courage of these men, Welsh recounted, wasn’t limited to the skies over Western Europe. “Each of them has a story about a mission that didn’t go well, about a day when he and his crew were the ones who didn’t return, about a day when his aircraft was either shot down or damaged so badly that they had to crash land in Switzerland,” the general said.

Today’s ceremony came about as the result of nearly 15 years of effort by Army Maj. Dwight S. Mears, an Iraq War veteran and an assistant professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York -- to learn more about his late grandfather, Army Air Forces Lt. George W. Mears, who was captured after his B-17 Superball was shot down in 1944.

“My grandfather was wounded, his controls were shot away, and he lost two engines, but he managed to fly the crippled bomber to Zurich, where the entire crew was interned,” Mears wrote.

Because Switzerland was neutral during the war, the Americans were not allowed to leave the country. But many, including the Airmen being honored today, wanted to get back into the fight or return home, Welsh explained. “For those who tried to escape and were caught, the punishment was severe.”

They were captured and interned with the very basest criminals in Swiss society, Welsh said. “They slept on lice-infested straw. Sewage and waste overflowed in many of the common areas. Many prisoners became very sick, and there was no medical treatment available.”

There was, however, solitary confinement, starvation and mental terror, the general added. And after the war, many of the survivors carried the secrets of the horrors they endured.

But Switzerland’s neutrality rendered internees ineligible for the POW Medal, because existing law required captivity by a belligerent force in a declared conflict, or alternately, captivity by “foreign armed forces hostile to the United States,” Mears wrote.

Congress passed an amendment to the fiscal year 2013 defense appropriations bill that allowed the Wauwilermoos Airmen to be considered for the medal. Air Force officials agreed that these airmen deserved recognition for their sacrifices while trying to reach allied lines in France.

“They served each other and our country proudly,” Welsh said. “They saved a world and they inspired a nation.”

The eight surviving POW Medal recipients are:
Retired Lt. Col. James I. Misuraca
Retired Maj. James V. Moran
1st Lt. Paul J. Gambaiana
1st Lt. James F. Mahon
Tech. Sgt. Alva H. Moss
Staff Sgt. John M. Fox
Sgt. William G. Blackburn
Sgt. George E. Thursby

The son and grandson of Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Sinitsky, who died recently, accepted the award on his behalf.