Prisoners of War

Hundreds of thousands of male and female military personnel on both sides were captured as prisoners of war during World War II. Despite the 1929 Geneva Convention agreement, which provided for humane treatment of prisoners of war, atrocities still occurred. Mistreatment by German and Japanese captors is well documented, but Allied troops also committed acts of brutality against captured enemy soldiers.

Prisoners captured in World War II were the first to be detained under the Geneva Convention. The agreement, signed and ratified by forty-eight governments (Japan signed, but its government did not ratify the agreement), noted among other things that food served to prisoners should be equal in quality to that served to the detaining troops, that prisoners should not be placed in solitary confinement, and that officers should be paid the same amount as comparable officers in the detaining country. The agreement also noted that prisoners could be put to work but that the work must not be a form of brutality, nor could it be connected with the war effort. Despite the Geneva Convention agreement, Germany used a great many prisoners of war, as well as residents of occupied countries, as forced laborers in war production facilities.

Prisoners were instructed to give captors only their name, rank, and military serial number. According to the Geneva Convention agreement, captors were allowed to question prisoners but were not allowed to use force or brutality to extract military information. Of course, that didn't prevent both sides from applying pressure on POWs, including torture, when they felt it necessary.

POW Mistreatment by Japan

Indeed, mistreatment of POWs was common, particularly among the Japanese, who viewed surrender as a punishable dishonor. The Bataan Death March is a particularly glaring example of Japanese brutality against Allied POWs. During that forced march, American and Philippine prisoners were routinely abused, beaten, starved, and executed without reason. At its end, more than 5,000 soldiers had died.

The forced construction of a military railway along the River Kwae Noi between Burma and Thailand was another example of Japanese mistreatment of prisoners of war and residents of occupied nations. In this case, more than 250,000 Asians and an estimated 61,000 Allied POWs, most of them British and Australian, were forced to build the 265-mile railway by hand, often using primitive tools and under brutal conditions. Tens of thousands died from mistreatment, malnutrition, and disease. The event was dramatized in Pierre Boulle's compelling novel The Bridge on the River Kwai.

At the end of the war, Germany held nearly 95,000 U.S. military personnel and about 200,000 British. Japan held almost 15,000 Americans and approximately 100,000 British. An estimated 2 million German prisoners were held by American forces at the end of the war and were turned over to the British and French as postwar laborers. An additional 2 million German POWs were also believed to have been held by the Soviets, who refused to release detailed records of prisoners of war.

The Japanese also routinely transferred prisoners of war without international supervision, as dictated by the Geneva Convention (which the Japanese government said in January 1942 that it would follow). As a result, thousands of Allied POWs were accidentally killed when unknowing Allied submarines sank the Japanese ships on which they were being carried.

German POW Camps

Germany usually complied with the Geneva Convention at its POW camps, but Allied servicemen still faced peril, and there were numerous reports of German atrocities against Allied soldiers who surrendered. In an event that came to be known as the Malmédy massacre, approximately 100 American prisoners were gunned down with machine gun fire by German SS troops near the Belgian town of Malmédy during the Battle of the Bulge. Those not instantly killed by machine gun were then shot in the head. Miraculously, a handful of soldiers escaped the massacre and were able to report it.

Many Axis POWs were held in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe, but a large percentage — some 400,000 — were brought over for incarceration in the United States. The German, Japanese, and Italian prisoners were gawked at by the locals and often forced to perform farm and ranch work but were generally well treated.

In another documented atrocity, nearly fifty British airmen were executed in 1944 after escaping from a German POW camp. And at the German concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria, approximately fifty Allied officers of various nationalities were beaten and kicked to death by guards. Similar massacres are known to have involved Soviet POWs.

Late in the war, Hitler declared that Allied airmen were “terror fliers” and approved the execution of any Allied airman found on the ground. An unknown number of Allied fliers were killed as a result of the decree, many of them hanged by Nazi sympathizers. Hitler also approved the execution of any Allied prisoner caught trying to escape.

Allied Prisoners

The Allies also had the blood of enemy POWs on their hands. In one well-known incident, thirty-six Italian soldiers surrendered to Allied forces in Sicily on July 14, 1943. On orders from the American company commander, John Compton, the Italian prisoners were lined up along a ravine and shot, presumably in retaliation for the wounding of twelve American infantrymen by sniper fire.

Figure 13-3 German prisoners captured after the fall of Aachen.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (260-MGG1061-1)

That same day, another American infantry company ordered forty-five Italian and three German POWs to be sent to the rear for interrogation. After the group had walked about a mile, the sergeant of the escort, Horace West, ordered them to halt, then mowed down the POWs with a submachine gun. On orders from General Omar Bradley, Compton and West were court-martialed. West was sentenced to life in prison, but Compton was found not guilty. An outcry regarding unfair discrimination between officers and enlisted men led to West's being released after a year and returned to active service. Compton died in action.

Did any German POWs escape while in the United States?

According to FBI reports, 1,607 Axis prisoners escaped from POW camps in the United States. Most were quickly recaptured, but the number of those who escaped permanently remains unknown.

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