Friday, July 18, 2008

Questions About WWII


Nicholas Strakon to Morley Evans

Dear Mr. Evans:

There were POW camps for Axis servicemen scattered all over the U.S., Canada, and the UK. In fact there was one for German POWs in Fort Wayne, Ind., the nearest town of any size to my little burg. In the United States, many were released on parole to work for the "Allied war effort." (In my area, I think they mostly did farm work.)

There are a number of fairly well-known movies that deal with or at least mention these POWs -- remember the young Italian POW in "The Godfather," Part One? "The Summer of My German Soldier" is one film that actually focuses on the POW thing; it's based on a book that is considered a "juvenile classic," for better or worse. (For my sins, I actually found myself watching this film some years azgo.)

One flick that I can actually recommend is one I saw just the other night, on a DVD from Netflix: "The One That Got Away." It's a British film from 1957 that tells the thrilling story of Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Franz von Werra, who was shot down over England in 1940 and decided that he was going to escape and return to Germany. I think he was in three different camps in England; he was finally sent to Canada, where he managed to escape from a moving train in the middle of winter and cross the icy St. Lawrence to the still-neutral U.S. One nice thing about the movie is that it was made before all WWII Germans were demonized as psychopathic Nazis.

Another German-POW movie that I remember (not as good as "The One") is "The Mackenzie Break," with Brian Keith. In this one, as I recall, it's a U-boat commander who plots an escape. I believe Scotland is the setting.

Once Axis POWs reached Allied camps, they were mostly safe and well cared for. But that sunny scenario did not obtain after the mass surrender of the Wehrmacht in the final collapse, according to James Bacque's OTHER LOSSES, which accuses Eisenhower of knowingly permitting hundreds of thousands of German POWs to starve to death.

Also worth mentioning is the Anglo-American Operation Keelhaul, which forcibly returned millions of Soviet refugees and large numbers of POWs to Stalin's tender mercies. Many committed suicide rather than let themselves be taken to the USSR. Nicolai Tolstoi made himself a thoughtcriminal in Britain for publicizing Keelhaul as a war crime.

Moreover, I've read somewhere -- in one of Paul Fussell's books, maybe -- that only about 50 percent of German POWs made it alive to the rear areas. American soldiers, at least, pretty routinely shot them after they surrendered. This is reflected (remarkably enough) in an episode of the HBO series "Band of Brothers," where an officer assigns a GI to escort some German prisoners to the rear area but allows him only one round for his rifle. The officer figures that otherwise the dogface would murder the prisoners, in keeping with usual GI practice.

I do find little in the American popcult that deals with Japanese POWs. I'm sure that dreadful stuff happened, more dreadful than in the European theater. I've always heard that the relative scarcity of Japanese POWs resulted from the Japs' refusal to be taken prisoner -- my dad, for one, always told me that. And no doubt there's a lot of truth there. But it seems likely that if American GIs routinely assassinated surrendered Germans -- their racial brethren -- they massacred most Japs who tried to surrender, in the great Pacific "race riot" of 1941-45.

Got to wind this up -- I'm overdue for Sunday dinner -- but those figures for German losses at Stalingrad are much-inflated. The German Sixth Army was the largest in the Wehrmacht, but it numbered only about 300,000 effectives at its strongest in the summer of '42, if memory serves. I'll look up some scholarly estimates when I return.

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