For me, tomorrow’s ceremony honoring World War II U.S. Army Air Forces airmen interned as prisoners in Switzerland is the culmination of nearly fifteen years of effort. It began with my own curiosity about my late grandfather, Army Air Force Lt. George W. Mears. At the time I was a cadet at West Point, and I was considering a career as an Army pilot. While visiting my grandmother, she showed me a pair of cracked leather shoes that were nearly worn through the soles. She claimed that we could not throw them away, as my grandfather had escaped from internment in Switzerland in these very shoes, which he wore until he reached U.S. lines in France. Surprisingly, she knew very little about his experiences in Switzerland, and could only tell me that he was interned there after his bomber was shot down in 1944.
I wanted to learn more, and so I located several of my grandfather’s surviving crew. They told me a fascinating story. Their B-17, Superball, was shot down while bombing an aerodrome near Munich in March of 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.
I wrote to the Swiss government requesting information, and was informed that my grandfather was incarcerated in a prison camp for attempting to escape back to Allied lines in France. The camp, Wauwilermoos, had notoriously poor conditions: the prisoners slept on lice-infested straw, were malnourished and had virtually no hygiene facilities or access to medical care. The camp was surrounded by barbed-wire and patrolled by armed guards with dogs. After the war, Switzerland even prosecuted the pro-Nazi commander of the camp.
Learning of my grandfather’s captivity in Wauwilermoos was the genesis of my desire to recognize him with the Prisoner of War Medal. Later, after I interacted with many internees who shared similar experiences, I realized that it would be a more meaningful achievement to bestow this recognition on those airmen who were still alive to receive it.
When the Army offered me the chance to teach history at the United States Military Academy at West Point, I built on the research I had already performed. After four years of scouring the U.S. and Swiss archives, I defended my doctorate in this subject. I then channeled my research into a legislative remedy that allowed internees to receive the Prisoner of War Medal.
Internees were considered ineligible for this medal because they were held by a neutral country, and the existing law required captivity by a belligerent in a declared conflict, or alternately captivity by “foreign armed forces hostile to the United States.” The Wauwilermoos airmen subjectively met neither qualification, although their treatment was comparable to captivity during declared conflicts. I felt strongly that this decoration was intended to recognize the personal sacrifices of service
members in captivity, not merely the diplomatic relationship with their captors.
My efforts were rewarded when Congress passed an amendment in the FY2013 defense bill that allowed the Wauwilermoos airmen to be considered for the medal. The amendment was supported by United States Air Force leadership, who agreed that these airmen deserved recognition for their sacrifices while trying to reach Allied lines in France. I owe them and several former Air Force officials a debt for their help in making this day possible.
Story by Army Maj. Dwight S. Mears, PhD