One man's efforts untangle WWII prisoners' Catch-22
CHARLESTON, Ill.— The last Illinois survivor of a mostly forgotten World War II prisoner-of-war saga lives in a white farmhouse 7 miles north of town.
Retired from grain farming since 1988, Alva Moss, 89, walks a narrow road, mows his lawn and plays tennis for exercise. And, he waits for recognition.
Moss was a prisoner in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland, but the military perceived it differently. According to the Department of Defense, he and about 160 other airmen sent there as punishment for trying to escape captivity didn't qualify as prisoners. Worse, many viewed the airmen as cowards, a misconception fueled by erroneous military reports and by the powerful literary license in one of the most critically acclaimed novels in American literature.
Nearly seven decades after their time in the camp, Moss and 11 other Wauwilermoos prisoners who are still alive are expected to receive validation. Later this month, Moss and others are expected to receive the long-denied Prisoner of War Medal thanks to the tireless effort of a West Point assistant professor and former Army pilot whose grandfather was a prisoner at Wauwilermoos.
"It makes me feel good," Moss said in his living room one recent afternoon, "like somebody's recognized that we deserved this." He was one of 19 Wauwilermoos prisoners from Illinois.
Although the POW Medal is the most tangible validation of his experience, Moss hopes that a recent amendment to federal law will correct history's misconception.
That misconception started in 1944, when military leaders grew increasingly concerned with the rising number of Army Air Forces bomber crews ending up in Switzerland and Sweden. An inflammatory report by the U.S. consul in Sweden caused more anxiety with its suggestion that the crews were attempting to avoid combat.
Even though future investigations proved the earlier report false, the rumors spread widely and took hold.
The truth was that Wauwilermoos was a miserable place, run by a Nazi sympathizer and designated specifically for captives who'd tried to escape from other prisoner-of-war camps in Switzerland.
A 1944 U.S. military memo reported that conditions there were "worse than in enemy prison camps." Americans slept on wooden boards strewn with straw. Meals were "black bread" and "watered-down soup," and men lost as much as 40 pounds, according to an article Dwight Mears wrote in The Journal of Military History. Latrines were very unsanitary, and heating was nonexistent. Skin boils, lice and dysentery spread to nearly all the American airmen at Wauwilermoos, War Crimes Office reports state.
But Switzerland's neutral status prevented the men at Wauwilermoos from being considered POWs by the Veterans Administration (now called the Department of Veterans Affairs). More damage was done to the men's reputations with the 1961 publication of the classic anti-war novel "Catch-22" by Joseph Heller. The title was taken from a fictional military regulation that contended airmen must be deemed crazy to be withdrawn from flying missions, but if they asked to be grounded for that reason, they actually were sane and could not be grounded.
The book, which sold an estimated 10 million copies and shows up on lists of the best American novels of the 20th century, was made into a feature film in 1970. In the book, Heller, a WWII bombardier, writes about airmen driven to the brink of insanity by increases in the number of required bombing missions.
He wrote that some men plotted to ditch their planes in neutral countries, where they would be "interned for the duration of the war under conditions of utmost ease and luxury."
Fast-forward to the late 1990s, when Mears was a at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., deciding which branch of the Army to choose. He'd discovered that his grandfather, George Mears, a B-17 pilot who died in 1972, was a prisoner at Wauwilermoos. Curious, the younger Mears obtained more records and found out about the deplorable conditions.
"The more I started peeling back the onion," he said, "I started contacting some of my grandfather's colleagues."
Mears filled out the paperwork to get a Prisoner of War Medal for his grandfather and the others, but was denied. He dug deeper and found inconsistencies that amounted to a Wauwilermoos Catch-22. Essentially, the captives were denied POW status by the Veterans Administration because they were held by nonenemies during war, although the VA would consider captives POWs if they were held in adverse conditions during peacetime.
"It occurred to me that my grandfather probably didn't care much about the medal, because it wasn't even created until 1985," Mears wrote in an email. "For those living, however, it was a powerful symbol of what they went through."
Apart from that insult, the men had to deal with the damaging public perception.
And, so Mears persisted. "I eventually made myself pretty much the expert on the Prisoner of War Medal," he said. Mears said he was driven by the fact that "these airmen went through a very difficult experience because they tried and failed to escape to Allied lines. For their efforts they were malnourished and incarcerated under squalid conditions, and many of them incurred lifelong health effects."
He appealed to senior, high-ranking staff at the Air Force, and Ann Petersen, former general counsel of the Air Force from 1989-93, responded. Petersen had experience, after helping secure medals in the early 1990s for WWII veterans interned in the Soviet Union. She got the attention of Congress and by 2010 a House committee directed the secretary of defense to review the rationale for awarding the POW Medals.
Even that ran into opposition from the Department of Defense, which contended that Switzerland's neutral status made the internees ineligible. The House committee responded earlier this year by amending language in the law to broaden the circumstances under which the medals can be awarded.
The Air Force secretary is expected to give final approval of the medals by Sept. 15.
"It's vindicating that the law was passed," Mears said. "I'm gratified that the Air Force is honoring the legacy of these men."
The relatives of those men are deeply grateful.
"Dwight's worked so hard," said Rob Carroll Jr., of Downers Grove, whose father, Robert Carroll, was a prisoner at Wauwilermoos. "I couldn't imagine the time and personal money he's spent just to get this done, just to help these guys. There's nothing in it for him."
Bob Griffin, of Winnetka, whose father-in-law, Ferris Martin, was another Wauwilermoos prisoner, called Mears "a bulldog. He won't let go."
Moss, too, is grateful. He said Mears contacted him about five years ago and has stayed in touch throughout the ordeal.
"Without him," Moss said, "there wouldn't have been anything done."
Not that Moss is convinced the medal is definite.
"I'll believe it when I see it," he said.