Memorial To Forgotten Heros

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May 23, 2013 No Comments ›› Site Administrator United States Flag

Memorial To Forgotten Heros

By: Colonel John Eidsmoe, Senior Counsel and Resident Scholar (http://morallaw

May is military month. On Memorial Day we honor those who gave their lives for our country, and during Armed Forces Week we honor all those who serve or have served.

During this time I hope we will give special recognition to a group of almost-forgotten heroes who have served, suffered, and in many cases died — prisoners of war.

During the Vietnam War Americans prayed daily for about 1,350 soldiers who languished in Communist prisons. But after 591 POWs were returned after the 1973aris Peace Accords, the press and the public generally assumed the rest must have died in captivity. Lingering concerns remained, but in 1993 a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs found “no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.” And as Americans wanted to put Vietnam behind them, the POW issue was mostly closed.

Or maybe not.

Recently I spoke with a 90-year-old World War II veteran. A bomber pilot, he flew a bombing mission over Germany One of his engines was hit by German anti-aircraft fire, and not having enough fuel to fly back to England, he flew east and crash-landed in Soviet-occupied Poland. There he spent several weeks under Soviet guard as a Prisoner of War.

But as I later learned, he was fortunate. Thousands of Americans spent months or years in Soviet prisons during and after World War II., returning only with great difficulty. And thousands more never returned at all, but were shipped to the gulag to toil for the Socialist Republic.

That’s preposterous, you might say. The United States Government would never allow thousands of our soldiers to suffer that fate. And besides, in World War II the Soviets were our allies — weren’t they?

If I’ve piqued your interest, read Soldiers of Misfortune: Washington’s Secret Betrayal of American POWs in the Soviet Union by James D. Sanders, Mark A. Sauter, and R. Cort Kirkwood, foreword by General William C. Westmoreland (National Press Books 1992). With meticulous documentation, Sanders et al. present compelling evidence that thousands of American soldiers have been left behind as prisoners after World War II, after the Korean conflict, and after Vietnam.

But why would American leaders allow such a travesty? In 1945 Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, eager to end the War and naive about Stalin’s true intentions, essentially let Stalin dictate the terms for the Eastern Front. And the Yalta and Potsdam agreements called for the return of Soviet, American, and other nationals to their homes. Roosevelt and Truman agreed, not considering that these “Soviet nationals” included thousands of anti-Communist Russians and others who had fled Communism, sought asylum in various Eastern European countries and also in the United States, did not want to return to the Soviet Union, and knew that their return meant certain death at the hands of Stalin.

Sanders et al. describe one such “repatriation”:

“American buses arrived with loads of Russian POWs and Eastern bloc POWs. They were immediately formed up and marched off. You could tell by looking in their faces there was agony in coming back.”
The American and British POWs waiting in the field watched as the Russian POWs were marched off to a nearby rock quarry. Soon the NKVD machine guns “‘played a song for about ten minutes.”
When the American and British ranks stirred with anger at the mass murder they heard echoing from the quarry, the U.S. officer in charge warned them to “Keep your heads down, your mouth shut and get on the truck.” (Sanders et al. 81-82).

These anti-Communist refugees outside the Soviet Union were an embarrassment to Stalin, and inside the Soviet Union they would be “inconvenient,” so he wanted to silence them once and for all. As he dictated the terms, “Soviet nationals” included anyone born in the Soviet Union, even people who had fled the USSR and become citizens of the United States. Stalin’s official line was that all such persons were prisoners of war, and he demanded their forcible return. And when America and England refused, Stalin refused to return American and British prisoners. In later chapters, Sanders et al. demonstrate that many POWs were left behind after Korea and Vietnam, and many of these were shipped to Siberia. The gulag needed manpower, especially American soldiers who had some technical expertise.

Here’s just one example out of many cited by Sanders et al. TSgt Lawrence Reitz of Hoopeston, Illinois, enlisted in 1940 at age 19. He was captured by the Germans 1 August 1943, and listed as dead after the War. But his mother was not convinced, and she was determined to learn the truth. Numerous former POWS told her they had seen TSgt Reitz at Stalag 3B and that he was transferred to 3A and was there on 22 April 1945 when the Soviets “liberated” the camp (“Liberation” is in quotes because American POWs commonly said they were treated better by their German enemies than by their Soviet “allies.”) The German Red Cross wrote on 15 October 1953 confirming that TSgt Reitz was alive when the Soviets “liberated” Stalag 3A. that they She traveled the world in search of her son; Truman’s Ambassador in Moscow told her he was dead, but the Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. told her TSgt Reitz was being held hostage for further “prisoner” exchanges. In 1947 German POWs told her of several thousand American POWs in “those prison camps northeast of Moscow.” Other Germans and Russians confirmed having seen his name on lists of prisoners, and others remembered him by name and face. In 1956 a German POW said he had served with TSgt Reitz in a Soviet labor camp from 1952 to 1954. Another POW, Hans Joachim Balfanz, told Reitz’s mother, “Reitz? Yes. I knew him well. I was with him and two Americans in the Vorkuta Camp, Shaft One, from August 4, 1952, until the sp;ring of 1954. As camp barber, I shaved Reitz twice a week and cut his hair once a month. He taught me a few bits of English.” Other prisoners reported that Reitz had been transferred to Odessa and to Vladivostok. But his mother’s efforts to find him were met with stonewalling and half-hearted efforts by American officials, and eventually her grief and frustration overcame her and she descended into mental illness. (Sanders et al. 137-51).

This is but one of countless accounts of American and British POWs who survived World War II only to be abandoned in Soviet prisons. Space does not permit me to present positive proof in this brief post, but if you have doubts, please read Soldiers of Misfortune.

What could Truman and his allies have done? Forcing Soviet refugees to return to certain death was unthinkable (although he did return many against their will, especially those who were residing in Eastern Europe). But abandoning American POWs to the gulag was at least as unthinkable (although Truman did that as well). But government officials could not admit that they had committed such an act of betrayal. And so, the official policy was denial: downplay the existence of POWs, stonewall the insistent parents and relatives who demanded an accounting for their sons, discredit the numerous witnesses who had seen them, and hope that with time Americans would forget (Sound like Bengazi?).

Speaking only for myself, here’s what I’d suggest. Truman should have issued to Stalin a succinct 5-point memo:

1. All who want to return home shall be allowed to do so.
2. No one who does not want to return home shall be required to do so.
3. We have the atom bomb.
4. You don’t.
5. Nagasaki…Hiroshima…Moscow.

If any World War II POWs remain in Russia today, they are in their 80s or 90s. Younger POWs may remain from Korea and Vietnam. We must continue to send expeditions to find those who are missing. We must insist that our elected officials demand a full accounting, both of the State and Defense Departments and of foreign nations. We must not simply accept assurances that there is “no compelling evidence” that any live POWs remain; rather, we must carefully scrutinize such assertions and weigh them against the evidence. And we must keep them in our prayers, and in our memories.

American soldiers have a right to know that if they fall into enemy hands, they will not be forgotten. Alive or dead, we will bring them back, regardless of the cost. War and peace often involve trade-offs, but the return of POWs should be nonnegotiable.

And may every Memorial Day service, every Armed Forces Day service, and every Veterans Day service, include those POWs and MIAs who have sacrificed so much for our freedom.

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