World War II Internees and POWs in Switzerland

November 11 is Veterans Day, honoring those who served in the United States Armed Forces. Today’s posts come from Jennifer Halpern, an archives specialist in the National Declassification Center (NDC). 

PAIR (Pre-ADRRES [Archival Declassification Review & Redaction System] Indexing Review) is one of the tracks the National Declassification Center (NDC) employs to review classified records and manage declassification. This process helps us fulfill the NDC’s mission of “Releasing All We Can, Protecting What We Must” and meet NARA’s greater mission to create access to our nation’s history. 

Unlike other declassification review tracks in the NDC, the PAIR project is concerned with reviewing legacy records from older declassification projects. These records, which had been reviewed and withheld decades past, are eligible for a re-review. For more information about NDC’s review processes, see the blog post from the Recap from the National Declassification Center’s Public Forum.

In the course of review work for the PAIR project, it is rare to come across records that capture the personal experience. In December 2019 I started to review one box of mostly handwritten notes, some of which can be more accurately described as “scribble” for their painful illegibility. What I found was a small collection (181 pages) of narratives from 107 airmen recounting their experiences landing in Switzerland during World War II. Some of these airmen were sent to prison camps.  

The reports had been withdrawn from Case Files of American Airmen Interned In Neutral or Allied Countries, 1943–44 (Record Group 498). The Scope and Content Note describes these records quite nicely:

This series contains information about crew members of Army Air Force aircraft forced down during combat operations. Most crew members were eventually interned in neutral countries (Switzerland, Sweden, Turkey), but some personnel evaded capture or internment and returned to Allied military control. Files include crew rosters, narratives of events leading to aircraft landing or crashes, and narratives of experiences during internment or evasion (geographic references, facility designations and descriptions, activities). Some files also contain lists of home addresses for crew members. Forms found in these files typically contain the following information about each crew member: name, rank, army service number, unit, and military occupation specialty.

The records in declassification legacy project NND 883555 are the narrative notes, handwritten and typed, for Appendix C of Escape and Evacuation (E&E) reports or case files. Appendix C was provided to document a narrative timeline of events from the moment Army Air Forces crew members arrived and were arrested by neutral or enemy forces to their return to American custody. 

The Appendix C forms in NND 883555 specifically concern airmen of the U.S. Eighth Army Air Force heavy bombardment groups who landed or crashed landed in and around Dubendorf Airfield in Switzerland. They were interned, with some sent to punishment camps, in Switzerland between March and September 1944 and through 1945. 

Overall, the records document their arrival at Dubendorf and eventual return to the Eighth Army Air Force station in London, England. Airmen either wrote their own statements or it was captured for them. On a scant one or two pages, they noted the route taken back to American custody; the general dates, locations (towns, homes, hotels, cafes, etc.) of their stops along the way; duration at locations; who they were with; modes of transportation; and the names and addresses of anyone who aided them during the journey. 

Airmen who landed or crashed near Dubendorf had suffered damage to their aircraft during bombing raids in Germany and France; their aircraft lost fuel and could not make it back to France. Depending on their routes and missions, Allied air forces would land in Switzerland, Sweden, or Portugal—all of them neutral countries—a preferred option to landing in Axis territories and becoming a prisoner of war.

During World War II, neutral countries were charged with interning all Allied and Axis military, including people from nonbelligerent countries. Internment included housing, food, medical care, contact with their government, and other support for all internees, regardless of their participation or side in the war theater. Stipulated in the Hague V Convention, all military belligerents were required to stay within the neutral country for the duration of the war. How internees were managed and monitored, and how a country implemented rules, however, varied from country to country.  

Switzerland’s definition and implementation of its “armed neutrality” during World War II has long come under debate, at least as early as the 1960s and more officially as a result of the the Eizenstat Report in 1997, which presented evidence of Swiss banks purchasing gold and assets looted from Jewish and non-Jewish victims and survivors. What has also come into question, but had not received any recognition until the 1990s, was the Swiss treatment and management of American internees.  

As a neutral player in World War II, starting in 1940, the Swiss selected the once-isolated town of Adelboden and converted tourist chalets and hotels to house internees. Enlisted men were sent to Adelboden, which Americans named “Camp Maloney” for the first American airman who died in Switzerland during World War II. Officers were sent to Davos and noncommissioned officers to the mountain village of Wengen. The locations were barred to the general population and provided group or mass accommodations. Being in the mountains, it was hoped, might deter escape. It didn’t. The Allied and Axis military housed in these locations included British, German, Polish, Russian, Czech, and French.

Appendix C begins with the day the airmen landed. Once in military police custody, American airmen were arrested, interrogated, and then quarantined for about two weeks in the cities of Chaumont or Neufchatel. (This was the process for any military personnel landing or crossing into Switzerland while on missions, Axis or Allied.) Airmen were sent to Adelboden, the first town used for internment. The Swiss later expanded internment locations to accommodate greater numbers of American airmen arriving as a result of the bombing raids in France and Germany between 1944 and 1945. 

The reports capture the airmen’s reasons for wanting to leave Switzerland, like housing, food, and medical care, which was inadequate. Airmen also remarked on the disparities between prices and comforts for Americans compared to other service members, the overall treatment by Swiss military police toward Americans, and that they felt the Swiss were unfairly supportive of German internees at Davos-Platz.

Airmen were all of the sudden sidelined during the war. They felt trapped in a broken-down chalet, lacking heat and hot water at times as well as adequate food. They attempted to occupy their time with card games and drinking beer. While some internees attempted escape, others remained in Switzerland through the end of the war.  

Some reports also highlight criticism of Gen. Barnell Legge, the military attaché to Switzerland at the U.S. Legation in Bern, and the American Legation. American airmen found the Legation unresponsive or dismissive to their living conditions and, in short, felt neglected. Airmen believed Legge was “crooked” and that the Legation was cheating them.  

The American Legation was aware of the conditions of internment at Davos-Platz and Adelboden and believed the Swiss poorly managed internment, provided substandard medical care, and severely rationed food. The Legation actively, albeit covertly and narrowly within the boundaries of international law, aided American airmen escaping internment and from punishment camps. They coordinated with the Office of Strategic Services network, civilians, and the French Resistance to secure guides and transport, supplies, clothing, and money to reach French borders. It was a diplomatic and legal tightrope.  

The American Legation faced multiple challenges in aiding Americans interned in Switzerland. They knew Swiss authorities worked to block internees’ escape attempts and interfere with the Legation’s officers meeting and communicating with internees. Further, the American Legation had little insight into the whereabouts of internees. Swiss authorities failed to notify the Legation and were dismissive of General Legge’s complaints and protests for information about the administration and care of American airmen interned in Adelboden and Davos-Platz. But, from the internees’ view, they felt abandoned. As a result, airmen escaping internment or punishment camps had little knowledge of American support and contacts, and many escaped back to London without assistance. 

General Legge believed airmen’s attempts to escape without Legation assistance was too risky for success, and he issued orders for Americans to remain in their internment. However, his orders conflicted with their order to regroup with their bombing group at the earliest opportunity, and therefore American airmen still attempted escape.

General Legge and the Legation understood that if Americans went at it alone, without the Legation’s network, they were guaranteed to fail. Through a blanket order issued by the Department of War in July 1944, General Legge warned U.S. servicemen to stay in Switzerland unless their escape was aided by the American Legation or face consequences, like a court-martial. This was meant to discourage American internees from leaving, getting caught, and ending up at a punishment camp—an even worse situation.  

Punishment Camps

Servicemen caught breaking rules (e.g., attempting escape from internment, excessive drinking, missed curfews) were sent to jail, or Wauwilermoos prison camp in Luzern, one of three military prison camps in Switzerland holding persons pending trial. A second camp was located in the town of Thun. 

From 1941 to 1945, Wauwilermoos prison camp was run by Commandant André Béguin, a Swiss Nazi supporter who led the Neufchatal right-wing and pro-Nazi political group Union Nationale before being kicked out for fraud. Béguin had a long record of misconduct and incompetence and, unsurprisingly, could not hold a job; his openly professed anti-Semitic views made his employment even more challenging. Having slipped through attempts for accountability, Béguin eventually oversaw the prison camp, where he was known for his severe punishments over minor offenses. He blocked correspondence and even stole aid and support items sent from the International Red Cross. 

The living conditions at Wauwilermoos were deplorable. Prisoners lived with lice and rats, slept on straw beds, lacked heat and sanitation, and subsisted on a diet of black bread and watery soup. Men at Wauwilermoos had no access to medical care; due to these living conditions, they developed skin infections, contracted tuberculosis, and suffered from dysentery and gingivitis, to name just a few ailments.

Second Lt. Charles D. Waska, of 506 Squadron, 44 Bombing Group (IR 100), recounted his experience:

18 March – crash-landed at Dubendorf – on fire – put out on landing. 2 days – interrogated – target bombs, etc. Sent to Neuchatel – Tried to escape end of March. Lt. Winston Irwin (44BG) and he left in civies over khaki uniforms. Walked past guards – (in mtns) – caught next morning nr La Chaux de Fonds, 2 kilometers fr frontier. Isolated sentry. In dungeon at La Chaux de Fonds day and ½, in concentra[tion] camp 6 wks at Wauehl [sic] (nr Luzerne) – never admitted you were escaping. Wauwehl – lived w/2 Ital, 2 Russians, 2 Yugo-Slavs, 2 Polish, 1 German (deserter) and 1 French.  Slept on straw, no heat, barbed wire, rats + lice, food was terrible – purple soup, mostly potatoes + black bread. Lost 30 pounds. Kept in small enclosure extra week bec[ause] of Amer bombing in Schaffhausen. Questioned by Commandant about it.” 

Staff Sgt. Spencer B. Lisenby noted his two attempts to escape, after which he was sent to a prison in Thun. He spent 15 days in prison, under solitary confinement, during which he reported being “allowed out of cell only 2 hrs on 8th day and 2 hrs on 14 day.”

American internees were held months without trial and were overall denied due process under the Swiss legal system. 

“WAUWILERMOOS [sic]. Food very bad. Sanitary conditions did not exist. Wrote to American Legation – no action.  It was like a German Concentration Camp. We want to protest against this place. No British officers [were] ever sent there. Swiss had no evidence against us. No trial.”

In these reports, airmen mention that the cause and duration of imprisonment was unknown, and the ability to speak at their own trial was revoked. 

Escape

Airmen narratives outline escape from the internment towns or the prison camp. In the case files we found during declassification, one escape route went from Davos-Platz to Kublis to Zurich to Vevey to Geneva to Annecy, France, and then Grenoble. The actual route depended on the distance and what mode of transportation they could access. After reaching France, many were transported by C-47 aircraft to London, to the Eighth Army Air Force Headquarters.

The networks created with the help of the American Consul were a patchwork of contacts with safe houses and guides who could provide food, clothing, money, and transportation. Many internees found their guides and contacts independently. Overall, American internees in these reports note the Swiss civilians and other Allied military (French, British, Yugoslav, Czech and South African) who came to their aid. In several reports, a German deserter was noted for helping American airmen.  

While some civilians charged handsomely for transportation to the border, others asked for nothing in return. Some turned in internees attempting to cross borders while others gave them civilian clothing to wear over uniforms. Swiss civilians (one described as “just a good Joe”) bought them train tickets, guided them through the mountains, escorted them across checkpoints in taxis, and gave them cover in public spaces and train stations. American airmen slept in offices in the American Legation, consulate employees’ homes, or in the woods and traveled on foot or by canoe across Lake Geneva to the French border. 

Sam E. Woods, the commercial attaché of the American Consulate in Zurich, was one such noted person. The attaché was known for his invaluable intelligence work while quietly aiding escapees from Switzerland. One escapee was Lieutenant Boswell, who landed in Dubendorf and later spent his internment in Davos-Platz. He was hidden in Woods’s apartment for four days while Woods made arrangements for him to travel from Zurich to Lausanne by train, and then Geneva by taxi and finally to France. Woods provided food and shelter, drove escapees hidden in his car across checkpoints, met with internees, and walked them out of their chalets. It nearly cost him his job, and he is remembered as a vital link to internees’ path to safety. 

From the documents, some accounts appear to have been captured in third person, as perhaps the airman narrated their experience from arrival in Dubendorf to London. When written by the airmen, in first person, the handwriting itself brings to life events. Their brief accounts express their frustration, disgust, endurance, and relief. This was just a small window into personal experience, however brief. 

Recognition of American internees’ experiences, especially those sent to punishment camps, has been long overdue. It wasn’t until the mid 1960s that the world began to question Switzerland’s role in World War II. Research from Swiss historian Peter Kamber’s Schüsse auf die Befreier (1993) and Olivier Grivat’s Internés en Suisse (1995) presented the challenging experiences and exclusivity of Americans during internment and identified their mistreatment in punishment camps. 

Daniel Culler’s Black Hole of Wauwilermoos: An Airman’s Story (1995), Cathryn J. Prince’s Shot from the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland (2003), and Stephen Tanner’s Refuge from the Reich: American Airmen and Switzerland During World War II (2001) exposed the horrifying conditions, revealed selective blindness, and shattered a historiological void.

In 2014 the Pentagon recognized 143 airmen as prisoners of war. This was the result of Dwight S. Mears’s doctoral work and subsequent research into American airmen interned abroad and Swiss interpretation of international law during World War II, and whose published research was vital to writing this blog post.  

For most of 2020 and 2021, the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, was closed. Hopefully, there will be more opportunities to digitize this series and make it available in the National Archives Catalog in the future. In the meantime, if you would like copies of the digital files featured in this post, send an email to archives.historian@nara.gov.

For more information about American veterans, specifically internees and escapees:

RG 498, Records of Headquarters, European Theater of Operations, United States Army (World War II):

3 thoughts on “World War II Internees and POWs in Switzerland

  1. This is a wonderful article about a painful topic mostly unknown to the U.S. public. Thanks for writing it!

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