Alva Moss was 20 when his World War II B-24 bomber took fire over Allach, Germany. He and the crew were forced to bail out over Switzerland, an officially neutral country during the war.
With his legs filled with shrapnel, Sgt. Moss parachuted into a tree, where Swiss police would later find him. He was put up in a resort hotel in the Swiss Alps, fed military rations and offered the best of Swiss medical care. He would be required to wait out the war there as an internee.
But Moss wanted to return to the front lines. As soon as he was healthy, he jumped out a window with a group of British airmen and headed for the border, hopping trains and dodging police on his way back to his unit, which was stationed at an airport just across the Italian border. But border guards caught up to him, and Moss was shipped to Wauwilermoos Prison Camp. There he lived the life of a POW, becoming part of a little known piece of WWII history.
He and 160 other Americans held at the camp were never officially recognized as prisoners of war because Switzerland was not at war with the United States.
On Wednesday, however, the Department of Defense made a correction. It awarded the United States Prisoner of War Medal to the eight surviving prisoners of Wauwilermoos camp. They were among 143 honored.
Gen. Mark Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, teared up as he pinned the medals on the airmen, now in their late 80s and 90s. Some were in wheelchairs, or hunched over metal walkers as they made their way to Welsh.
Along with Moss, the living veterans honored were James I. Misuraca, James V. Moran, Paul J. Gambaiana, James F. Mahon, John M. Fox, William G. Blackburn and George E. Thursby. Staff Sgt. Joseph Sinitsky was honored posthumously, along with 134 others. (The remaining airmen have yet to have their status fully verified.)
“This is a great time for us,” Moss said Wednesday, his medal gleaming from the lapel of his suit jacket. “Everyone was together again and there were no slackers.”
Their recognition was the result of an extended campaign by Maj. Dwight Mears, who started the project as a West Point doctoral student. Now he teaches history there. Mears culled records from U.S. and Swiss archives to show that conditions at Wauwilermoos were analogous to camps elsewhere.
Mears’s effort was also personal: His grandfather, George Mears, a B-17 pilot, had been imprisoned at Wauwilermoos.
They were men trapped in a diplomatic gray zone. How could they be prisoners of war in a neutral country?
And they were men under suspicion. At one point during the war, U.S. officials suspected that those airmen who ended up in neutral countries were deserting the military in favor of internment. A total of 1,570 American airmen were interned in Switzerland. But there and in Sweden, the numbers grew so large that U.S. officials feared they were facing a morale crisis.
In May 1944, William Corcoran, the U.S. Consul in Sweden, submitted a report suggesting that airmen were “openly expressing opposition to further service.” The military launched an investigation that ultimately showed the doubts were unfounded.
Mears found evidence of more than 1,000 escape attempts. In Wauwilermoos, airmen fled though being caught meant being sent to solitary confinement.
After the ceremony, Mears read from a letter written by Sinitsky.
It turns out that Wauwilermoos also housed the country’s worst convicts. The camp was run by a renegade Swiss military officer and Nazi sympathizer. According to Mears, the prison was an aberration.
While the Swiss Army and the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross were busy monitoring POW conditions in other countries, few efforts were taken to ensure humane conditions in Switzerland, Mears said.
“Nobody was inspecting them, and they were not inspecting themselves,” said Mears, whose grandfather was one of the men honored Wednesday.