World War II internment camp survivors honored 70 years later

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By Amaani Lyle, American Forces Press Service / Published May 01, 2014


Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III (center) presented the Prisoner of War Medal to eight Army Air Corps members during a ceremony April 30, 2014, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. From the left are Sgt. William G. Blackburn, Tech. Sgt. Alva H. Moss, 1st Lt. Paul J. Gambaiana, retired Lt. Col. James I. Misuraca, retired Maj. James V. Moran, 1st Lt. James F. Mahon, Staff Sgt. John G. Fox, Sgt. George E. Thursby. The eight aviators served in World War II as bomber crew members and were shot down flying missions over Germany. They were held in a prison camp in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland. Until recently, they were denied POW status. Then Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning authorized the medal for 143 Army Air Corps aviators in October of last year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jim Varhegyi)


Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III (right) hosted an office call for eight Army Air Corps members before presenting them with the Prisoner of War Medal during a ceremony April 30, 2014, in the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. The eight aviators served in World War II as bomber crew members and were shot down flying missions over Germany and were held in a prison camp in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland. U.S. Army Maj. Dwight Mears, whose grandfather Lt. George Mears, who was also held at the prison, fought diligently for 15 years to get the men recognized as POWs. Then Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning authorized the medal for 143 Army Air Corps aviators in October of last year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Andy Morataya)


Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III presented the Prisoner of War Medal to eight Army Air Corps members who served in World War II during a ceremony April 30, 2014, at the Pentagon. The honorees were bomber crew members, who were shot down flying missions over Germany and were held in a prison camp in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland. Originally denied POW status, then Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning authorized the medal for 143 Army Air Corps aviators in October 2013. U.S. Army Maj. Dwight Mears, whose grandfather, Lt. George Mears, was also held at the prison, fought diligently for 15 years to get the men their deserved recognition and status as former POWs. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jim Varhegyi)


First Lt. James Mahon (seated) is congratulated by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III after he and seven other World War II aviators received the Prisoner of War Medal April 30, 2014, during a ceremony at the Pentagon. Mahon and seven fellow aviators, all bomber crew members, were held in a prison camp in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland, after being shot down during a mission over Germany. The men were denied POW status until October of last year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)


First Lt. James Mahon (seated) is escorted into the Pentagon where he and seven other World War II aviators received the Prisoner of War Medal from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III during a ceremony April 30, 2014. The eight crew members were shot down while flying missions over Germany and were held in a prison camp in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland. Originally denied POW status, then Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning authorized the medal for 143 Army Air Corps aviators in October of last year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jim Varhegyi)


Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III applauds retired Lt. Col. James I. Misuraca after presenting him with the Prisoner of War Medal during a ceremony April 30, 2014, at the Pentagon. Misuraca and seven other aviators, all bomber crew members were shot down while flying missions over Germany and were held in a prison camp in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jim Varhegyi)


Francine Munster shows Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III an album containing historical documents and photographs following a POW Medal ceremony, April 30, 2014, at the Pentagon. Munster is the daughter of Col. James Mahafee, who was posthumously awarded the medal. Mahafee and seven other World War II aviators received the medal during the ceremony. All bomber crew members were shot down while flying missions over Germany and were held in a prison camp in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland. For decades, the men were denied POW status. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)


Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III presented the Prisoner of War Medal to Staff Sgt. John Fox during a ceremony April 30, 2014, in the Pentagon. Fox, and seven other aviators, all bomber crew members, were shot down flying missions over Germany and were held in a prison camp in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland. The Airmen were denied their POW status for many years, until then Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning authorized the medal for 143 Army Air Corps aviators in October of last year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jim Varhegyi)


First Lt. James Mahon (seated) is congratulated by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III after he and seven other World War II aviators will received the Prisoner of War Medal during a ceremony April 30, 2014, at the Pentagon. The eight aviators, all bomber crew members were shot down flying missions over Germany and were held in a prison camp in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland. The men were originally denied POW status. U.S. Army Maj. Dwight Mears, whose grandfather Lt. George Mears, who was held at the prison, fought diligently for 15 years to get the men recognized as POWs. Then Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning authorized the medal for 143 Army Air Corps aviators in October of last year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)


Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III presented the Prisoner of War Medal to 1st Lt. Paul Gambaiana during a ceremony April 30, 2014, at the Pentagon. Gambaiana and seven other aviators, all bomber crew members, were shot down flying missions over Germany and were held in a prison camp in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland. The men were originally denied POW status. Then Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning authorized the medal for 143 Army Air Corps Airmen in October 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jim Varhegyi)


Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III (right) presented the Prisoner of War medal to 1st Lt. James Mahon April 30, 2014, during a ceremony in the Pentagon. Mahon and seven other aviators, all bomber crew members, were shot down flying missions over Germany and were held in a prison camp in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland. Then Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning authorized the medal for 143 Army Air Corps aviators in October 2013, after the Airmen were denied the proper status for decades. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jim Varhegyi)

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WASHINGTON (AFNS) --

Eight U.S. Army Air Force Airmen who were interned at Wauwillermoos, Switzerland, seven decades ago were finally honored with the Prisoner of War Medal April 30.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III presented the awards to seven surviving men who in 1943-44 were “barely old enough to grow facial hair,” Welsh said, 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 one in four chance of survival,” Welsh noted.

Aircraft loss rates of 30-50 percent, he said, 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 eight 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 ceremony came about as the result of nearly 15 years of effort by U.S. Army Maj. Dwight S. Mears, an Iraq war veteran and an assistant professor of history at West Point, to learn more about his late grandfather, Army Air Force 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 eight survivors, 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,” he said.

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.

Switzerland’s neutrality rendered internees ineligible for the POW medal because existing law required captivity by a belligerent 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 2013 defense bill that allowed the Wauwilermoos Airmen to be considered for the medal. The Air Force 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; they saved a world and they inspired a nation,” Welsh said.

Award recipients were:
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

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