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The POW Experience: Myth and Reality

(Keynote address given at Muscatine, Iowa Conference on WWII-Era POWs, 6 October 2002)

by Lewis H. Carlson


          It is not that we are ignorant; it's just that we know so much that isn’t so.


             Let me begin my formal talk by explaining some terms:

Oral History:

           History from the bottom up, as told by those who never expected their words to find the printed page, or, indeed, to be taken seriously by anyone else. A literal German translation for oral history might be mündliche Traditionen but I prefer Geschichte von Unten.

           Oral history is a tool for democratizing the study of history. For example, the experiences of Vietnam veterans, reported in several superb oral histories, greatly affected the willingness of World War II soldiers to talk more openly about their experiences, although to do so they had to overcome the popular and military stigma attached to surrendering and becoming a prisoner of war. (There's a general insisting that to become a POW represents a failed mission and one wife wrote, "Even though you are a coward and a failure, I still love you").

           Oral history can also be a liberating force. This is very important for POWs or for members of any disenfranchised group, who are victimized by a profound sense of guilt about their individual condition. For example, many of the POWs I interviewed seem to have blanked out their moment of capture. After all, John Wayne was never captured. John Rambo was, but only in order to escape and exact his bloody revenge. Real individuals must develop a sense of history, if for no other reason than to escape or at least illuminate the myths that affect how they judge their own experiences.

           The people we interview become our teachers. After all, who better can tell us what it means to be a soldier or a prisoner of war? (Raymond Lech refused to interview former POWs for his Broken Soldiers: American Prisoners of War in North Korea.) These men know first hand just how cheap life is in war and how quickly the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away by combat or captivity.

           Such men also understand that the capricious whims of Dame Fortune do not consistently recognize or reward courage. Unlike most fictional portrayals of war in which courageous soldiers create their own destinies, in real war it is chance that often dictates one's fate in combat and in a prison camp.

           I cannot emphasize enough the innate intelligence to be found in those we interview. Our popular culture often reduces the lower classes to a level of banality, vicious baseness, or comic relief, but oral histories are filled with profound insights, complexities of character, and intuitive understandings of historical forces that could put many professional historians to shame. Oral histories have so much to teach us. Had superb oral histories such as Studs Terkel's The Good War been available in 1950 or 1963 would Americans been so willing to send their children off to Korea and Vietnam? The answer is probably yes, because popular beliefs about sacrifice, courage, and national glory are so deeply ingrained in the nation's psyche. President Bush's demand for unquestioning support for his apparently inevitable war against Iraq is a case in point, although there are growing numbers of Americans, as there were before his father's Gulf war and during President Clinton's incursions in Bosnia, who pose poignant questions about the human cost of such ventures.

Popular Culture:

           Popular Culture is what most of us are exposed to most of the time when we aren't sleeping. Our popular culture includes film, television, periodicals, best-sellers, music, advertising, even photographs. For our purposes today, we will pay particular attention to how our popular culture has massaged and transmitted messages, and reinforced myths, on what it means to be a POW.

           Consider for a moment from whence we have learned about the POW experience. Probably not from the New York Times or the Washington Post or even die Frankfurterallgemeine or Suddeutche Zeitung, and certainly not from scholarly treatises. And relatively few of us have been fortunate enough to have talked to former POWs. In reality, the majority of us have gotten most of our information from the popular culture that engulfs us, and, of course, these messages continually change the way we view the past. A pre-Gorbachov Russian explained this process so very well in his own country when he cynically explained, "We know the future; it's the past that keeps changing."

           Let me illustrate what I am talking about by briefly look at Hollywood's changing portrayal of POWs over the past three major American wars. Better than any other medium, Hollywood understands how Myths reflect current values, assumptions, and expectations, as well as antipathies, illusions, and anxieties, all of which affect how we choose to depict our collective past.

           The mythical literary and film images of our POWs go all the way back to the crucible of the Indian captivity stories (a fate worse than), and although the details change, the overall message stays on track. Simply put, the POW experience is reduced to a simple morality play in which courageous American boys suffer terribly at the hands of uncivilized brutes who clearly represent an alien culture. Such portrayals allow neither subtleties nor ambiguities, only images of clean-cut, innocent, freedom-loving American youngsters caught in the clutches of villainous enemies whose values stand in sharp contrast to everything Americans hold dear. And if reality does not square with such popular notions? Well, so much the worse for reality.

Examples of Changing Themes in POW Films:

           WW II - escape - Great Escape ([addition of Americans for box office appeal]; Steven McQueen was not riding a motorcycle in the real escape, and the man James Gardner played was actually a convicted murderer from Georgia, a fact overlooked by the movie-makers. Three successfully escaped: two Norwegians and a Dutchman, all of who could speak German fluently), Bridge on the River Kwai (again the addition of an American, William Holden, although no Americans were in the actual camp), and Alex Guinnes' Col. Nicholson, (although there was no Col. Nicholson in the real camp and the enlisted men did not worship their officers), Von Ryan's Escape, (with Frank Sinatra), Victory (in which Sly leads the Allied POWs to victory in an improvised soccer game and a Swede, Max von Sydow, plays the sympathetic German Kommandant), and Stalag 17, again with William Holden.

           Korean War - collaboration - Manchurian Candidate (1963), POW, and a host of others, including P.O.W., starring Ronald Reagan as a phony POW, parachuting into North Korea to investigate collaboration.

           Vietnam - revenge - Rambo and its imitators - (Make the point - the POWs were the same, only external factors had changed). We lost this war, something that we were not supposed to do, so revenge is so much a part of these films.

           Popular myths not only affect how a society collectively determines its past but also how its individual members react to and later recall their own changing experiences. After all, they have been exposed to the same mass-mediated images, and they have taken these with them into captivity and into their post-POW lives where the results have not always been positive. This conflict between what we can call individual versus collective memory has often made former POWs feel guilty about their own experiences, but they need to understand how such myths affect their judgment of their own experiences. A marvelous example of this occurred when returning Vietnam POW Larry Guarino met John Wayne at a 1973 White House reception:

           "Duke," I said. "I tried to think about how you might have handled the interrogators." He listened intently. "So when they asked questions I told ‘em to go to hell; and when they asked me to do something, I told ‘em to stick it up their asses… And do you know what, Duke? They beat the shit out of me!"

           You see, our culture demands that our young men always act heroically (the main indictment of my Korean War generation). Yet, the vast majority of prisoners in any war, regardless of nationality, do not spend most of their time defying their captors or tormenting them or even trying to escape. Most prefer  simply to sit out their captivity, trying to make the best of an often untenable situation.

           Let me illustrate this further by looking at the myth of name, rank, or serial number. According to the 1929 Geneva Accord, that's all a prisoner is required to give his captors, and, initially, most men I interviewed insist this is all they did. Well, let me tell you a story told me by a World War II U.S. Army sergeant who spoke perfect German and whose job it was to interrogate captured Germans. He insisted he was successful in getting approximately 80 percent of his prisoners to talk quite freely, although this was certainly not true of SS types. One of the tricks he had learned from his British counterparts was to stamp Nach Russland on the papers of stubborn prisoners. Of course, the German equivalent when interrogating American prisoners was to tell them they would be turned over to the SS or the Gestapo. I asked this American interrogator what percentage of Americans he thought gave more than the name, rank, and serial number. "Oh," he said, "about 80 percent."

Other Myths:

           The myth of the individual dominates American culture, and we often reduce war to the exploits of a single individual or to a very small group of soldiers (this is true even in such superior war films as Saving Private Ryan). Yet, it is precisely one's individuality that is stripped away by war and certainly by incarceration.  In reality, the POW must rid himself of the notion that he is an independent agent. If he is to survive the hostile and often dangerous world of captivity, he must accept and welcome the support of his fellow captives. (E.g., the American POW who was so sick his first night in the permanent camp that he could no longer control his bowels and a fellow prisoner, who was a total stranger, had to clean him up. John Wayne did not do such scenes). This need for a certain humility and dependence may appear obvious, but it is a difficult lesson for most American men, who have been raised to believe it is a sign of weakness to need the help of another human being.

           America's cultural heroes are always self-sufficient, larger-than-life individuals who stand tall in the saddle, no matter what the odds. Consider the Marlboro Man, alone, astride his horse, silhouetted against the sunset, ready to take on all comers. Or reflect on John Wayne almost single-handedly fighting a two-front war against the Axis powers. Nothing puts the lie to imagined individual heroics more quickly than the reality of modern war, where the individual becomes a faceless nonentity, battered by forces he often never sees and certainly does not control. One of Kurt Vonnegut's other worldly characters in his whimsical POW novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, put it best: "I've visited thirty-one planets in the universe, and I have studied reports of one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will."

           Vonnegut's novel, which in 1972 was made into a successful film, paints an unforgettable portrait of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier and POW who is the antithesis of popular culture's traditional hero. Billy is awkward, inept, and non-involved. He has lost all sense of dignity and he escapes only by taking fanciful flights back and forth in time. Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, a retired Air Force Reserve officer, millionaire, and Harvard history professor, is forced to share a hospital room with Vonnegut's anti-hero. Disgusted by Billy's delirious mumbling about wanting to quit and surrender, Rumfoord derisively tells him, "I could carve a better man out of a banana." Perhaps, but Billy's combined use of apathy and fantasy to escape the vicissitudes of a situation he cannot control might seem perfectly normal to many ex-prisoners.

           Related to this point, is our collective contempt for those men who actually gave up in the prison camps and turned their faces to the wall. In so doing, they simply willed themselves to die. Our mythical heroes, of course, never give up, regardless of how tough things might be. Yet, closing down one's system when it can no longer function is not an irrational act. German prisoners, by the way, had a very different attitude about this, especially those interned in Russian prison camps.

The Myth of Resistance and Escape:

           Ceaseless resistance and escape are constant themes in Hollywood POW films. Prisoners are always baiting the dull, overweight, clownish guards or sabotaging the best laid plans and spit-polished jackboots of the German Kommandant (Stalag 17, along with its TV spinoff, Hogan's Heroes, come immediately to mind). Such films trivialized the POW experience or played it for laughs, without any serious attempt to portray life "in the bag," as the American POWs called it, as it existed for most prisoners or for even those guarding them. Hollywood could never do justice to the shock, pain, confusion, and even shame that commonly characterized a prisoner's existence.

           Many of the prisoners did contemplate escaping, but less than 2 percent ever attempted an escape. David Westheimer, who wrote Von Ryan's Express which was about an American escape from a German-run prison camp in Italy, was himself a World War POW, but he also understood why it was much better to escape through the pages of his novel than through the reality of the German countryside:

           Like most veteran prisoners, I'd have loved to escape if it were handed to me on a platter but when it came to planning one I found the obstacles daunting… I didn't know where I was except that it was deep in enemy territory with no underground to help me, it was too cold to exist for long in open country, I was in the wrong uniform, and my German would never fool anyone. Maybe most important, when I was picked up, as I certainly would be, I'd have lost all the food and clothing I'd accumulated so painstakingly over the long months. 

           There were also repercussions for those left behind; e.g., conditions became worse for all the men, and the SS might take over their camp, as it did after the Great Escape from Stalag Luft 3.

Survival in a POW Camp:

           Although fictional portrayals of POWs have invariably focused on the excitement generated by attempted escapes, gloomy resignation and stifling boredom more typically characterized a prisoner's daily existence. Rather than attempting unrealistic and potentially dangerous escapes, it was far more sensible for the prisoner to try and counter the negative effects of his enervating environment. Keeping busy was all-important, either through recreational, cultural, or educational activities or by just communicating with one's friends. Religion worked well for some men, and especially for those who took a strong sense of spirituality with them into the camps. Many of those interviewed talked freely about praying, particularly when they felt alone and forgotten, but, unlike the accounts published by some former Vietnam POWs, which often led American audiences to believe that imprisonment brought out the best in their fighting sons–including manly courage, an enhanced love of country, and an unquenchable spirit of independence, the men I interviewed never seemed to blend religion, God, and America into some kind of holy trinity.            

Surviving Stress:

           Boredom and lethargy were the bane of all prisoners of war, and many had trouble handling their enervating existence. When possible, prisoners tried to fill their empty hours participating in plays and musical groups; studying, painting, carving, reading, daydreaming, sleeping, walking; playing chess, cards, and sports; and, most often, in endless conversations with fellow prisoners. As I already mentioned, some prisoners became devoutly religious, treating their captivity as a kind of spiritual crucible. Others became too depressed to do anything. A few just lay on their bunks, refusing to talk or even eat. Others had to be forcefully restrained from rushing the fence to commit suicide. The more fortunate prisoners learned patience and tolerance, as well as a deeper understanding of self and an appreciation for friendship.

           Enlisted men, who were more likely to experience harsh treatment and debilitating conditions, not surprisingly suffered more incidents of acute depression and neuroses than did NCOs and officers. A lack of training, organization, and leadership were important factors, but so too was the rigid and often condescending class structure that existed in the military and in the prison camps as well. The result was that among the lower ranks dispirited men often exhibited less commitment to discipline and even survival than did the higher ranks.

           American-held German prisoners suffered a different kind of stress. Relatively few were overtly mistreated, and acute hunger, cold and a lack of sanitary facilities were seldom problems in the camps. Nevertheless, they were prisoners, and being incarcerated is an unnatural experience for any human being. They too had to deal with enervating boredom. They also missed and worried about their loved ones back home who lived in constant peril. Finally, because so many of them faced additional years of internment in France, England, and Belgium, the cessation of hostilities in 1945 did not end their agony.

           Looking back, the most important survival factor seemed to be friendship. Perhaps because all experiences were magnified, possibly because there was such an obvious need for an active support system, and certainly because prisoners were an inescapable part of each other's lives, friendships became all important (not necessarily  true in Korea with its extremely high POW death toll because you were too likely to lose a friend and plunge into depression yourself)). Ex-prisoners can go years–even decades–without seeing a former prison buddy and then restart the friendship right where it left off in the camps. "Initially," said one former POW, "you tended to become very selfish because you spent so much time thinking about yourself and your own predicament. It was only when we got beyond that and started doing things for other people that we became less depressed." But there were also times when a prisoner just had to lower the curtain and be alone with his thoughts–to seclude himself in his own little world. The key seemed not to be overly preoccupied with one single thing, whether that single thing was yourself or counting the barbs on the fence.

           One former prisoner targeted the following characteristics for survival: a good sense of humor, fortitude, reliability, and a willingness to share. Another suggested that "all people in positions of responsibility, politicians particularly, ought certainly to have had schooling in the skills of being a good POW. It causes you to look after yourself being aware that someone else is looking out after himself and you mustn't damage him. You are both equal when all is said and done." Another insisted, "Afterwards you felt nothing was impossible. Whatever it was, you could do it, and you never allowed yourself to be bored again." This man also talked about discovering genuine goodness and courage in others as well as in himself.

The Aftermath:       

           Popular cultural portrayals of the POW seldom addressed the long-term effects of imprisonment, except in the action-packed Vietnam POW/MIA revenge films so popular in recent years. To make heroes out of ex-prisoners, Americans wanted to believe they came back better men--that captivity, as historian Elliott Gruner writes, became "the true test of the American self--a test passed with flying colors. The men I interviewed do not talk about such challenges, although some of the officers insist imprisonment had no permanent effect on them. The former enlisted men are more introspective. Most know they have been deeply scarred by their experiences. Many have experienced problems with alcohol, family abuse, holding a job, and various physical infirmities. Many have spent years silently trying to excise their painful memories. Most agree that captivity was the central experience of their lives, but not because it somehow redeemed them or made them into more noble Americans. Their legacy can be found in their struggle to retain a sense of decency and self-worth in the face of truly horrifying and debilitating circumstances. Indeed, theirs is the legacy of survival itself.


[Time did not allow the speaker to deliver what follows at the conference:]


Comparing and Contrasting the Experiences of World War II German and American POWs:

           American and German World War II prisoners shared much in common. All were lonely, bored, and no longer capable of controlling their individual destinies; most indulged in introspective examinations of self; all suffered indignities, but many experienced an incident or two that reinforced their belief in human decency; all had to learn patience and a degree of tolerance; some became very self-confident after realizing they could handle extreme adversity; others suffered what has become known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

           But there were also differences between the experiences of the two groups. Most German prisoners in the United States were reasonably well treated; after all, they looked like the majority of Americans, and they shared a common heritage with many of their captors. German POWs had plenty to eat, a warm place to sleep, and even such niceties as tooth brushes, soap, and sufficient clothing. Many took classes, including some for college credit; others played in orchestras, frequented camp libraries, and engaged in sports.

           Those who worked outside the camps gained an intriguing perspective on everyday life in America. Of course, camp guards could be hostile, insulting, and, in a few cases, physically threatening. German prisoners also had constant worries about their families and loved ones back home, especially as news of lost battles and devastated cities reached their prison compounds. They anxiously wondered what kind of country awaited their return and who would still be alive to greet them.

           A few German POWs encountered terrifying threats from their fellow prisoners. Initially, hard-core Nazi officers ran many of the camps, sometimes with the full and admiring support of American military authorities. These ardent fascists demanded total discipline and unwavering allegiance to the Führer, and often brutally attacked fellow prisoners whom they suspected of anti-Nazi activities or of collaborating with American authorities. In several instances they even killed the alleged offenders. After the war, the U.S. government executed fourteen German POWs, each of whom was convicted of killing a fellow prisoner. Most prisoners, however, were apolitical, especially as the war ran down, and eventually American authorities attempted to isolate the more zealous Nazis in segregated camps.

           For many German prisoners in America the greatest surprise and shock came at the end of the war. They naturally expected to be repatriated to Germany "with all deliberate speed," as the Geneva Accord stipulated, but fewer than 75,000 of the 380,000 German POWs in the United States were sent home in 1945. Those remaining continued to work in the United States, at least until July 1946, when the U.S. Government returned its last German prisoner to Europe. Unfortunately, because of negotiated agreements among the Allied Powers, the majority of those shipped in 1946 ended up in France and England where they spent up to three additional years as POWs.

           The most pressing problem for most American Kriegies (short for Kriegsgefangenen, the German word for prisoners of war) was obtaining sufficient food, warm clothing, minimum health care, and adequate shelter, especially during the frigid European winter of 1944-1945 when many died of pneumonia. Some POWs were deliberately and flagrantly abused, but in general American and British prisoners received much better treatment than did their Russian counterparts or the tens of thousands of slave laborers or concentration camp inmates. Once they were on the ground and safely in the hands of military authorities, U. S. Army Air Corps personnel suffered least because Hermann Goering's Luftwaffe recognized a certain honor and respect among airmen.

           Whatever the conditions inside or outside the camps, a prisoner's cultural attitudes could influence his general outlook and his willingness to adapt. While both Americans and British soldiers believed they were products of superior cultures, there were differences. As one Englishman put it, "Americans thought they were the best but Englishmen knew they were." The British, with their sense of tradition and imperial superiority, and the Americans, with their belief in their own higher mission, both considered themselves vastly superior to their enemies; consequently, they believed there was little to be learned from their captors. In World War II, this attitude was most blatantly directed toward the Japanese, although Germans could also be held in contempt. Allied prisoners delighted in baiting and ridiculing their guards, referring to them as “Goons,” while seldom making any attempt to study the language or customs of their captors.

           German prisoners could also be insufferably arrogant, but many of them sought opportunities to study life outside the camps, eagerly learned English, and took a wide variety of classes, some even for college credit. Similar educational opportunities existed in several of the German prison camps, at least for the officers, but relatively few Americans took advantage of them. A large number of the non-political German prisoners brought positive feelings about the United States with them to the prison camps. Many had read Karl May's Westerns or thought they knew about America from Hollywood films, popular music, and travel literature.

           Naturally, there were those American prisoners who transcended cultural provincialism. Some attempted to make friends with guards who treated them well. And many Air Corps prisoners came to understand the outrage of German citizens who had wanted to kill them when they hit the ground. Finally, the more perceptive prisoners understood that the common people, including their military counterparts, were also suffering the ravages of history's most devastating war.

           In the final analysis, the common man, whether German or American, seldom picks his nationality, and he has few options when his political leaders determine he must serve his country. The experiences of such ordinary men, who did most of the fighting and dying and who dominated the prison camps on both sides of the Atlantic, illustrate that national distinctions fall away when human beings are trapped by circumstances they neither control nor fully comprehend. Through the telling of their stories these men achieve a dignity and importance not found in traditional history books. To be a soldier and a POW, and to survive to tell the story, is an act of heroism. These men's testimonies deserve the attention of those whose information has come either from the detached objectivity of scholarly discourse or from the commercial and myth-laden stories so frequently found in popular fiction, movies, and television.

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