Nearly 70 years after being interned in a Swiss disciplinary camp and, for many, punished for trying to escape, a group of 157 American Second World War pilots and crew members have been awarded the Prisoner Of War Medal by the US Congress.
“With this POW medal, I’m glad to have recognition after 68 years, but disappointed it took so long,” said Lieutenant Colonel James Misuraca. “I have never been angry with the Swiss people. I was angry at the Swiss military for incarcerating me in a hell-hole like Wauwilermoos [prison].”
Around 1,750 American aviators were interned in hotels in the Swiss alps during the war, in line with the 1907 Hague Convention, and could not be set free until the hostilities ended. Those who attempted to escape to rejoin their troops were placed in disciplinary camps.
Misuraca, a bombardier in B-24 Liberator bomber, was sent to the prison after attempting to escape Switzerland from Davos where he was being detained. He told swissinfo.ch he was mistreated at the Wauwilermoos prison camp near Lucerne, run by André Béguin, a man who did not hide his pro-Nazi sympathies.
“I was interrogated by the tyrant, Captain Béguin, who was a disgrace to the Swiss military. I was mistreated by being forced to live in a wooden hut inadequately heated by one wood burning stove. Slept in a wooden bunk filled with lice-infested straw.”
For Misuraca, there was no difference between a German prisoner-of-war camp and Wauwilermoos.
“[We were] fed rations consisting of thin soup with slivers of potatoes and cabbage and dark bread. Our hunger was never alleviated. The guards were coarse and crude. The prison camp was surrounded by double barbed wire with guard towers and guard dogs patrolling. No soap or water; [the] latrine was primitive.”
The US aviator finally managed to escape, arriving in France on November 1, 1944. Misuraca stayed in the air force until 1964, working as a broker afterwards.
Aged 92, he has never returned to Switzerland, although he would have liked to see Davos again, which he says was the most pleasant part of his internment. He adds though that he has never received any form of apology from the Swiss authorities.
Threats and crashes
ICRC delegates who visited Wauwilermoos failed to notice much amiss.
“If iron discipline is the norm, there is also a certain sense of justice and understanding that helps with the re-education and improvement of the difficult elements sent there,” wrote delegate Frédéric Hefty.
The reports contained statements from internees that the camp was a relaxing place that they would happily return to. However the internees provided their statements in return for favours from Béguin.
In 1944, the American military attaché in Bern warned the Swiss foreign minister, Marcel Pilet-Golaz, that the mistreatment inflicted on US aviators could lead to “navigation errors” during bombing raids over Germany.
On July 19, 1944, a bomber crashed into the tower of Wyden Castle near Zurich. It also happened to be a property belonging to Max Huber, president of the ICRC until 1946.
After the war, Washington refunded Huber SFr769,000 to help rebuild the 48-room manor.
The crash was ruled out as payback. The B-24’s crew had bailed out 30 kilometres away on their way back from a mission over Germany.
However the indemnity was the biggest ever paid out to a Swiss citizen during the war.
“I thought about dying”
In 1995, another Wauwilermoos internee, Dan Culler, did receive an official apology in Bern from the then Swiss president, Kaspar Villiger.
Interned in an empty Adelboden hotel, in the Bernese Oberland, he attempted to escape by heading south. But after falling ill form eating inedible berries, he returned to the hotel.
As punishment, he was sent to Wauwilermoos, and locked up with four eastern European detainees, who raped him a number of times.
“Four of them held me down while the other did his thing, all taking turns. I was bleeding all over. I was from a small town in Indiana and had never had a sexual relationship,” he said.
The next day, he went to report what happened to Béguin, but was only met with ridicule. Sent back to the same hut, his aggressors kept on tormenting him.
“I thought about dying a number of times,” added Culler, who never received a visit from the Red Cross.
After falling ill with tuberculosis, Culler was sent to hospital, where he tried to escape again with the help of the American military attaché. He remembers travelling to Geneva to meet three other US aviators at a restaurant.
From there, a taxi took the four men to the border marked by a barbed-wire fence. “We fled under a hail of bullets that were fired by Swiss soldiers without warning, before meeting some French smugglers,” explained Culler.
Béguin did not get away scot-free. After the war, he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison, degraded and expelled from the army. He was found guilty of stealing prisoners’ money for his own use and to pay his debts. When he was arrested, investigators found 200 unposted letters from internees complaining of conditions at the camp.
In 2001, Béguin’s daughter wrote to Culler at Christmas time, speaking of years of suffering and asking for forgiveness for her family and her father.
Grandson of another interned US aviator, Major Dwight Mears has completed his doctoral thesis on American internees in Switzerland.
According to his research carried out at the Swiss federal archives in Bern and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, over 150 men were entitled to the prisoner-of-war medal, 11 of whom are still alive. Those who are dead will receive the medal posthumously.
Mears said that conditions in the camp had not been reported correctly. “Switzerland’s wartime general, Henri Guisan, demanded that all Red Cross reports about the internment camps be submitted to army censors first if delegates wanted access,” he noted.
Switzerland was the only neutral country during the Second World War to fully enforce the 1907 Hague Convention requiring the internment of foreign soldiers until the end of the conflict , according to Mears. Unlike Sweden, Portugal or Turkey, the Swiss neither handed over internees to Germany, nor did they take attempts to escape lightly.
By Olivier Grivat, swissinfo.ch