Well, I’ve been watching the news with regards to the upcoming presidential election and have been doing some reading about John McCain and his POW experiences. It looks like the conditions were pretty horrific in general, not to mention the mental state of those behind the bars. This has made me start to do some reading about POW conditions in earlier wars. I mean, I had heard of the Great Escape, but my knowledge beyond that was minimal.
After doing some reading today, I’ve found out that life behind barbed wire isn’t quite the way Hollywood makes it out to be.
Only by taking a few minutes to examine the life the POWs underwent can we come to appreciate how well we have it in today’s world. Painful, yes. Necessary? I would say so.
Time magazine in 1973 ran a piece entitled, “At Last The Story Can Be Told”. In the story, many Vietnam veterans recalled their treatment at the hands of their captors:
“…Many U.S. senior officers and uncooperative prisoners of lower rank were held in solitary confinement. Navy Captain James Mulligan was kept alone for 3½ years, Colonel Robinson Risner for 4½ years, and Air Force Colonel Fred Cherry for two years—with an unattended infected shoulder. Said Mulligan last week, “You’re isolated in a small cell, with no sound, no fresh air. I was kept like an animal in a solid cage, worse than an animal. I couldn’t even see out. I didn’t see the moon for four years.” (2)
Many of them told all to their captors, even though being trained to not do so. From what I have read, this information wasn’t always necessarily correct. John McCain recalled telling his captors that the Green Bay Packers were in his squadron. (3)
Unlike the glorious recruitment posters, earlier wars were no different for the unfortunate ones caught or captured behind enemy lines. So far, I’ve only read about the Army Air Corps veterans of World War II, captured and sent to the Stalag series of camps, but I’ve got some more history to read I know, especially World War I.
It looks like the kriegies had way too much time to deal with, at least the officers in places like the Stalags. Food also was on the radar: how to get more, how to make up meals, etc. I found out that one of the biggest tools they worked with during capture was KLIM cans, or Red Cross powdered milk cans (MILK spelled backwards) which could be turned into an amazing variety of things.
In the book, B-17’s Over Berlin: Personal Stories from the 95th Bomb Group (H), we read:
“…Tin cans that brought us KLIM…were fasioned into everything from baking pans to slide rules and even a complete pendulum clock that worked….”
Being a POW is so traumatic and so mind-blowing that for years, the armed services have emphasized training to deal with this issue. Courses and education help the service members to deal with the possible eventuality of their capture. During World War II, kits were distributed to fliers in the case of being downed and contained bare essentials to help them negotiate with the local population (money?) and/or make their way through rough terrain. Post-war, the Air Force established the Survival School to help train personnel on this issue.
I’ve assembled some good links on this subject from a variety of viewpoints. Take a few minutes and look them over, the information is very extensive.
Have a great day!