There were American POWs aside from those held by the Japanese in World War II. That conflict was a two-front war. As such, the Germans also captured Americans. The history of those interned by the Japanese is significantly different from those imprisoned by the Germans. The total time spent as a prisoner, the age of those captured, the sex of the POWs, the probability of escape, the mortality rates of prisoners, and how the captors viewed their captives all serve as points of comparison. Men and women held by the Japanese constituted the war's first POWs. As such, their time as prisoners tended to be longer than those Americans who would later be captured by the Germans. Age constitutes another factor in a comparison of POWs. Since they were already in the military when the United States entered the war in December 1941, POWs held by the Japanese also tended to be a few years older than those held by the Germans. Additionally, gender factors into a comparison of POWs in the two theaters of war. While prisoners in both the Pacific and in Europe were overwhelmingly men, the Japanese interned a small number of American nurses and civilian women for the duration of the war. This was not the case in Europe. The possibility of escape and overall treatment account for two more differences.

        Escape proved much more difficult in the Pacific. Physical features of the POWs clearly made them stand out from the Asian population, allowing their captors to more easily identify them if any prisoners should escape. But since almost all of the American POWs held by the Germans traced their family lines back to European immigrants, escapees could easily blend into the German population. Geography also made escape less likely in the Pacific theater. The island terrain of the Philippines or the Japanese homeland islands made it extremely difficult for POWs to make their way to Allied lines. Vast expanses of water would have to be crossed before reaching friendly forces. For those held in China, Allied forces were also at a distance. Yet in Europe, since Axis and Allied armies were based on the same continent, getting to Allied lines was not as insurmountable a prospect as in the Pacific. If cultural considerations and geographic factors were not enough to limit attempts at escape for those held by the Japanese, how each captor nation dealt with POWs who tried to get away also restricted those who thought of fleeing. In some camps, the Japanese organized their captives in units of ten. If one prisoner in a group escaped, the guards threatened to execute the remaining Americans. The Germans did not exact such punishment. An attempted escape usually resulted simply in re-internment.

            However harsh the Nazi war machine might have been, Germans tended to treat POWs as their equals--soldiers and airmen fighting on orders of their government. One military unit might overwhelm another. When this happened, surrenders occurred. This was not the case with the Japanese who had no respect for those who were surrendered. Fighting to the death was part of the Japanese warrior code. From the capture of the first Americans, the Japanese treated them harshly, physically beating them on mere whims of the guards. Due to the more brutal treatment inflicted on POWs by the Japanese, Americans in the Pacific war suffered a much higher mortality rate than their counterparts in the European theater.

         Such a comparison is not meant to imply, however, that Americans held by the Germans did not suffer under harsh treatment or terrible conditions. They did. The Nazis organized large POW camps throughout Germany where conditions worsened as the war progressed. Approximately 95,000 Americans became prisoners of war in the European theater, about triple the number of Americans held in the Pacific.

Those numbers increased as troop offensives moved United States forces closer to the German homeland and as the air war intensified over Germany. The Allied war in Europe is perhaps best seen as three different offensives--the first in Northern Africa, the second in Italy, and the third in northern France. All three aimed to advance Allied forces to Berlin where a surrender would be forced upon Hitler's government. With German and Italian troops entrenched in North Africa, the first Americas POWs held by the Germans were captured there as an Allied campaign began in November 1942. It lasted until May 1943, at which time the Allies secured North Africa. American forces then concentrated on securing a base of operations in Italy. That proved more difficult than first believed. From a landing on Sicily in July 1943, it took a year and a half to “climb the bloody boot.” Americans did not secure a foothold in northern Italy near Bologna until January 1945. Even then, fighting continued until early May. While the Italian campaign continued for months, Allied forces invaded southern France in August 1944. By that date, the Americans and British had mounted the famous D-Day landings at Normandy in northern France in June 1944. In the months ahead, Allied armies from northern and southern Europe converged to make their way to Berlin. Throughout the campaigns in North Africa, Italy, France, and Belgium, American POWs captured by the Nazis ended up in German POW camps.  

         Two types of camps existed for the kriegies, an abbreviated form of kriegsgefangenens, the German word for “prisoners of war.” These camps reflected two different groups of prisoners. For the approximate 60,000 American ground forces, the camps were simply known as a stalag, from the German word stammlager, or “permanent camp.” For over 30,000 Americans captured in the air war, the camps were called stalag luft, a shortened form of luftwaffestammlager, or a permanent camp for those involved in the air war.

Generally speaking, life proved easier for POWS in the stalag luft camps than in the regular stalag camps. The Luftwaffe, the German air force, ran the luft camps and did not condone harsh treatment of Allied aircrews. American POWs who were Jewish, however, suffered a much harsher treatment at the hands of the Germans. Within their own Reich, the Nazis used genocide in an attempt to kill an entire people they judged to be inferior and culpable for crimes against the German Fatherland. The military merely extended its anti-Semitism into the camps for any Jews who became prisoners of war. By early 1945, conditions in all of the camps deteriorated as their population ballooned. The December 1944 Battle of the Bulge on Germany's border with Belgium, the last major German offensive of the war, resulted in over 23,000 American POWs captured in the ground war.

Additionally, the success of the Allied air war resulted in food shortages. Germany had to continue to house and feed POWs as aerial bombings made it more difficult to transport food supplies for its own military and civilian population. The feeding of Allied prisoners was not a priority for the German high command. For those held by the Germans, memories of inhumane box car rides to stalag compounds, forced marches in the winter of 1944-1945, and near starvation conditions in the last months of the war cannot be forgotten. What follows are some stories of Americans who are willing to share their experiences in detail.

Prisoners of War Stories

Art Harris's service in World War II spanned the entire period of United States involvement with the exception of just a few months. He enlisted in the Army in April 1942, just four months after the attack at Pearl Harbor. The Air Corps trained Art as a bombardier on a B-17 that flew out of England as part of the Eighth Air Force. By May 1944, he and his crew made it through thirteen missions. But in a bombing run over oil refineries in Hamburg, Germany, antiaircraft defenses hit Art's plane. All but three of the crew died in the resulting mid-air explosion. Art ended up in Stalag Luft III, a POW camp in northeastern Germany. Art's experiences at Luft III mirrored that of other prisoners. He exercised by walking around the compound and doing push-ups. For entertainment, he watched theatrical productions put on by other POWs and read the Kriege newspaper published in camp. Dramatically, Art also occupied himself by helping to dig escape tunnels. Art admitted he felt claustrophobic while in the confined underground space. To guard against cave-ins, wooden supports for the tunnel came from slats that held up the mattresses. Assigned a top bunk, Art was concerned that not too many slats be taken away from his bunk for the tunnels. Like others, Art helped to distribute dirt from the digging by putting it in his pant legs, which were tied at the ankle. In walks around the camp compound, Art slowly released the dirt by pulling a string. He estimated that at one point the POWs were digging ninety tunnels at various locations in the camp. According to Art, the Germans knew what the prisoners were doing, but punishment, if caught, was never that great. No successful escape from Stalag Luft III occurred in the year Art stayed there. He remained at that camp until the winter of 1944-1945 when the German military transferred Art and other prisoners to Moosburg, in southern Germany. After the war, Art attended regular reunions with other POWs. At some of these, they brought their German guards to the United States to attend, all expenses paid for by the American hosts.

Wren Bowyer was a family man, married with a two-year-old and a four-year-old when he enlisted in the Army in September 1942. Almost a year of training followed his induction a few months later into the Army Air Corps. Wren arrived in Italy as the pilot of a B-24 bomber in the spring of 1944. At age twenty-four, the younger crewmembers called him “Papa.”  Wren flew his first combat mission in April 1944 and readily admitted it was “scarier than hell.” He racked up forty-nine missions from April to the end of July. According to Air Forces policy at that time, once a crewmember flew fifty missions, he was to be transferred out of combat. Wren's fiftieth occurred on July 25th. The target was a tank works in Lintz, Austria. Out of nineteen American planes sent out, German defenses shot down seventeen. One was Wren's, hit by a German fighter. Five of his crew got out and five did not. Taken prisoner, the Germans sent Wren to Stalag Luft I in northern Germany near the Baltic Sea. He stayed there until the end of the war. In his hometown of Oklahoma City, his wife learned of his status two days after his capture from some East Coast ham radio operators. They monitored German radio broadcasts. When names of captured American crewmen were announced, the United States operators contacted the families if they could locate them. It took a month before the Army formally notified Wren's wife of his status. Over the course of the next nine and a half months, in Wren's estimation the Germans did not mistreat him. His food allocation did decrease, however, as the war dragged on. When he first arrived in Luft I, for example, German guards distributed Red Cross packages once a week. By the spring of 1945, very few reached the prisoners. What food they did get contained maggots. At first, Wren and other POWs picked them out, but eventually they gave up on that, eating the maggots in what little food rations the Germans distributed. Wren recalled that after Russian troops liberated Luft I at the end of the war, a search of two nearby warehouses turned up piles of Red Cross packages. Wren admitted to one lasting effect of his POW experience. After the war, he became a real “grouch” about food being left on a plate.  

Norm Achen traced his desire to fly to a dramatic event when he was just six years old. The famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart landed near the Arizona desert home where Norm and his family lived. After Earhart flew off, Norm envisioned himself “out there in the sky, exploring the world.” A barnstorming ride a few years after that later reinforced his wish. At one point, the pilot let the boy fly the plane, and as Norm put it, “I was hooked. I wanted to be an aviator in the worst way.” Once the United States entered World War II, there was only one branch of the military in which Norm wanted to serve. Trained as a pilot, he flew a P-51 Mustang fighter plane out of England as part of the Eighth Air Force. Two months after his arrival, Norm's plane was shot down over Germany on August 15, 1944. He did not die when his Mustang crashed. And he did not die when angry Germans on the ground threatened him. But he did become a prisoner of war, interned at Stalag Luft III, southeast of Berlin.  Probably the worst period for Norm as a prisoner occurred late in January 1945. To move the POWs away from Russian forces that could liberate them, the Germans forced the prisoners to walk south from Luft III to the city of Spremburg near the Polish and German border. The POWs endured freezing cold weather and starvation conditions. From Spremburg, trains took the Americans to a camp at Nuremberg. Living conditions worsened from one week to the next. Norm and a friend decided to escape. About two weeks later, after more than one close call where they could have been recaptured, the two men reached American forces. Decades later, Norm judged war as “one of the greatest experiences” a person can have. “ I learned so much about myself,” he believed, including his ability to survive.     

Mitchell Cwiek flew in the European air war in two capacities, first as the pilot of a B-17 bomber and second as a pilot of a P-38 Lightning fighter plane. He unabashedly identifies the latter as his “true love,” so perhaps it is appropriate that Mitch flew the P-38 on his last World War II mission, the one where he ended up becoming a POW. Mitch arrived in Italy in the spring of 1944 to fly with the Fifteenth Air Force. He flew eleven missions in the Balkans, Austria, and northern Italy. When food poisoning temporarily hospitalized Mitch, half of his original crew died in a mid-air collision between two B-17s. Then a chance meeting led to Mitch leaving one squadron for another. He ran into an old classmate from his days as a cadet. That pilot convinced him to request a transfer to a P-38 squadron. Mitch's flight experience back in the States, which included a couple hundred hours flying B-25s and thirteen hours flying a P-322, and a persuasive letter to the commander, led to the approval of the transfer.  After twenty three hours of refresher flying the P-38 in Italy, Mitch was sent with his squadron to the island of Corsica in August 1944.  From an airstrip in Corsica, he flew six combat missions in support of the invasion of Southern France.  The squadron returned to its Italian base on August 21, 1944.  On August 22, 1944 Mitch was flying fighter escort for bombers heading to Austria. An enemy fighter hit his Lightning from behind. Mitch became a prisoner of first the Hungarians and then the Germans. He ended up at Stalag Luft III in northeastern Germany until January 1945. In a bitterly cold winter, his captors forced Mitch and other POWs to march about 70 km from Luft III to Spremberg, a city west of Luft III near the Polish and German border. There the prisoners boarded boxcars where crowded conditions and fear of Allied strafing made the trip to Moosburg, in southern Germany, a horrific journey. Before this trip had begun in Luft III, guards had given the prisoners time to pack. Many left personal items behind so they would have more room for food supplies saved from Red Cross boxes. One item many left was a drawing book the YMCA supplied to prisoners. Food, the men knew, would be more precious, but not to Mitch. He took his book with its sketches of life in Luft III. Today he judges it to be his “most valued bit of memorabilia” from a military career that eventually spanned twenty years.

Ray Klinke came full circle during the war--“I was 4-F when I went in and 4-F when I came out.”  His local draft board had first rejected him as 4F. After his liberation from a German POW camp where he had suffered months of malnutrition, Ray was clearly 4F again. His time as a prisoner of war began on September 28, 1944. Two months earlier, Ray had arrived in England as a B-17 replacement pilot for the Eighth Air Force. On his sixth mission, with an oil refinery near Berlin as its target, German antiaircraft fire hit Ray's plane. With two and a half engines damaged, Ray piloted the crippled B-17 for about ninety minutes, hoping to make it to Belgium. Once another engine caught fire, however, Ray gave the order to abandon ship. After interrogations and a four-day train ride with other POWs, Ray ended up in Stalag Luft I, in northern Germany near the Baltic Sea. At first, life in the camp was not that bad, although Ray characterizes the daily bread as “so hard it would make a good doorstop.” Guards served the bread with crops such as cabbage and turnips. But knowing that latrine water irrigated the crops, “we cooked the devil out of anything we ate.” Red Cross packages augmented the prison diet until the end of November when guards stopped distributing them because transportation problems prevented delivery. Christmas became memorable because the guards gave each room of POWs a small Christmas tree. The prisoners decorated it with the tops of tin cans whose silver and gold colors gave the tree a holiday look. The New Year did not bode well for the prisoners in Luft I. Chilling winter weather added to their misery and food distributions decreased. The Germans rationed their daily coal allotment, used to heat food and warm the barracks. As Ray recorded in a diary he kept, “spirits are very low.” Liberation occurred on May 2nd when Russian forces converged on Luft I. Today, Ray admits to still feeling some lingering effects of his eight months as a prisoner of war. In a file cabinet that stands in his garage, one drawer holds a large amount of chocolate, and Ray keeps on hand more packages of socks and underwear than he really needs.  

Paul Finot never failed to capture the attention of a listener when he explained that his time as a prisoner of war began when “I fell five miles into a toilet.” He arrived in England in July 1944 as a tail gunner on a B-17 named Totin Tille after the pilot's wife. Paul became part of a small, tightly knit group of men who flew the aircraft. He recalled that once, on a weekend trip to London, “the entire crew all dressed as enlisted men so we could stay at the same club.” On November 5, 1944 they left England on a bombing mission over Mannheim, Germany. Flying in formation with other B-17s, the enemy shot down the plane above Paul's. It, in turn, “fell on top” of Totin Tille. With the tail cut in half, it fell toward the earth. Of his nine-man crew, only Paul survived. His parachute landed him in a German outhouse right in the middle of Mannheim. What happened in the next two weeks followed a pattern common for other POWs--solitary confinement, interrogations, and finally assignment to a camp. The Germans sent Paul to Stalag Luft IV, near the Baltic Sea in northern Germany. He stayed there until February 1945. At that time, guards loaded Paul and others from the camp onto a train headed south. Paul's boxcar contained sixty men, many more than spaced allowed for. Ten or twelve days later, the POWs arrived in Nuremberg. Paul described the prisoners as “filthy, covered with vermin.” They could barely walk due to the squeezed positions the men had endured for days. Allied troops liberated Paul and other POWs from a camp at Moosburg early in May. Before his death in 2007, Paul wrote a memoir of his experiences as a prisoner of war. He admitted that, “I can remember many of my war experiences with a clarity that I am not sure is such a good thing.” On the other hand, Paul's memoir does not exhibit any bitterness toward his German captors. Rather, he displays empathy towards them. On another positive note, he laced the narrative with an underlying sense of humor, a trait that remained with him throughout his life. During the war, that characteristic helped him survive as a POW. Paul ended his memoir on a serious note, however. He wrote down the name and crew position of the men in his B-17. He prefaced the list with one simple, touching statement, “I miss them.”

Larry Cilestio's personalized automobile license plate displays the date of his liberation from a German POW camp. Like most young Americans, he wanted very much to fight in the war. Larry distinctly remembers hearing news of the attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The sixteen-year old feared the war would be over before he would be old enough to fight in it. It wasn't. When Larry turned eighteen, he signed up for the Army Air Corps. He arrived in Italy in December 1944 as a crewman on a B-24. As part of the 15th Air Force, Larry and the rest of his bombing group flew out of Italy on bombing missions. The sixteenth one, on March 12, 1945, became their last. The target was a synthetic oil refinery in Austria. Larry's plane was the lead one, and as such, German defenses zeroed in on it. The plane lost one of its engines. All ten members of the crew bailed out. Hungarian soldiers fighting for the Germans captured Larry and two others from his crew. Three horrific days followed. As Larry painfully recalls, “they did a number on all of us.” Finally, the Hungarians turned them over to Germans soldiers who forced Larry and his crewmates to walk three hundred miles to Germany. Larry stayed in two POW camps, one at Nuremberg and another at Moosburg. Terribly overcrowded, with not enough food or water, Larry judged Moosburg to be “a hellhole.” When United States forces liberated the camp, Larry remembers how joyful the prisoners were, so much so that one POW kissed one of the American tanks. Larry explains that what got him through those months as a prisoner was his positive attitude, his belief that he would survive. After the enemy shot down his plane, the Army officially listed him as an MIA. In fact, Larry's hometown newspaper ran his picture and name along with other MIAs in its Victory in Europe issue on May 8, 1945. As of that date, Larry's mother still did not know he had been taken as a prisoner of war. When he finally arrived home, Larry bounded up the porch steps and proclaimed to his mother, “I told you I would make it.”    

      One could argue that the history of  POWs gives us the most powerful stories of World War II while at the same time furnishing us insights into the most neglected area of the war. When prisoners returned home, some recall a military order they received not to discuss their experiences. More so than others who served, the ex-prisoners did not want to discuss those experiences. Many, if not most, POWs captured by the enemy felt some measure of guilt because they were on the sidelines. In a memoir written for his family, Paul Finot admitted that, “most of us had a feeling of guilt, that somehow or another we had done something wrong by being captured.” Yet if one of the lessons of World War II is the strength of the human spirit, the stories of men and women who became POWs should not be neglected.

Howard Sharpell's early life was fairly untouched by the Great Depression, one of two seminal events his generation lived through, yet it was dramatically changed by the second one, World War II. In their adolescent years, many of his peers experienced constant relocations, poverty-like living conditions, and a general uncertainty about their future. None of this proved true for Howard, however. While his college-educated father lost one position with a major company, he eventually secured another one. As an only child, adoring parents and grandparents surrounded him. But then the war came. He did not wait to be drafted. Instead, Howard dropped out of college to enlist. Stateside, the Army first trained him in antiaircraft artillery. After that, Howard participated for several months in a higher education program for the most intellectually gifted enlisted men, the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). After it disbanded, the military trained him as a combat engineer. His battalion arrived in northern Europe in October 1944. The Battle for Normandy had ended, and Allied troops were moving toward Germany. Somewhat ironically, both sides of Howard's family immigrated to the United States from that country. Now he became part of the invading Allied forces. Although he avoided the harshest aspects of the Depression, this did not prove true for the war. Howard's first campaign was one of the most famous in the European Theater, the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. On the second day of that German offensive, the enemy took Howard as a prisoner of war. Four months later, in April 1945, he escaped and reached American lines. For Howard, the war thus ended a month before Germany surrendered. As with so many other veterans, however, memories of it remain strong almost seventy years later.  Read more of Howard's story here.