Monday, July 14, 2008

Prisoners of War

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If you bomb the enemy, you won't have any prisoners. If you march your prisoners to Siberia in February, you won't have many prisoners for very long. So the answer to the question, "Where were our concentration camps?" may be that we didn't have concentration camps because we didn't take prisoners. Still, we must have taken some prisoners. What happened to them?

The Germans captured vast Soviet armies in the beginning of Barbarosa. What did the Germans do with their prisoners? There were millions in the Soviet armies. It was summer so the Germans didn't have any help from the Russian freezer. Did the Germans kill all their prisoners? I haven't heard that. What happened to them?

Prisoners are a problem. Prisoners have to be cared for, like it or not. Prisoners are expensive. Prisoners have to be fed, clothed, protected from the elements. Sanitation needs to be looked after properly: disease can wipe out, in a few days, a population kept in close quarters. Anyone who keeps prisoners alive, however miserably, is humane. Is mass murder more humane?

Knowing these things casts events in a different light than we are used to seeing them. Killing people is easy. Keeping them alive is not easy and it is not cheap: prisoners take resources away from their captors. They take away things like fuel, shelter and food. Even if you kill them, prisoners take away bullets. Everything costs something.

I had a friend who just recently passed away at 83. Like most veterans with combat experience, he didn't talk about the war very much. But Larry [1] did tell me this: He spent the last years of the war in Stag Luft 3 [2]. My friend told me he had been shot down over The Netherlands on his way home one night. He became a prisoner of war a few months after "The Great Escape" (January 1943). He spent several years in the camp. Then one night, they were all rousted out of bed. They were not too happy about it. It was cold. They were sleepy.

The prisoners were assembled and marched west. They marched for several days until they came to a railway where they were loaded onto a train that took them to a large camp near Bremmen where they were liberated soon after by the British Army. Why had they been evacuated? The Red Army was coming. The Germans were fearful of the Soviets — for good reason.

My friend piloted Halifax bombers [3], the second largest heavy bomber in Bomber Command after the Lancaster. His job, he said, was to get the plane over a target where they would drop everything. Strategic bombing? The drop would be over a burning city which was easy to see at night. Finding the way there and back was the job of the navigator. "I just flew the plane. The navigator was the most important person on board. He got us there and back." How did the Halifax compare to the B-17? [4] "We were bigger, but they had more guns," Larry said cheerfully.

The Germans looked after the British and American airmen who were responsible for terror bombing that began in 1940 and ended in 1945. We don't usually think of it in those terms. Why would the Germans feed, clothe and guard these men? They had dropped bombs on Germany day and night for years. Why wouldn't they leave them for the Russians — just throw them to the wolves?

It's something to think about.


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