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Army Air Forces Victims of the Holocaust

"The Japanese should hang -- not shoot -- every American terror pilot (Terrorflieger) then the Americans would think it over before making such attacks."
- Advice given by Adolf Hitler on May 27, 1944, to the Japanese Ambassador on how to stop American air attacks

Almost 36,000 Army Air Forces (AAF) personnel were confined in prisoner of war (POW) camps in Europe. There, under the 1929, Geneva Convention, POWs had certain rights. These rights were not always honored by the Germans, however. Conditions varied widely from camp to camp, officers usually fared better than enlisted men who sometimes faced malnutrition and beatings. The treatment of Jewish POWs ranged from their being ignored or segregated to brutality and even death. Despite their status as POWs, some Jewish and non-Jewish Americans were sent to concentration camps where they were subjected to the horrors of starvation, overwork, no medical attention, beatings and murder. Some are known to have died at Berga slave labor camp. At least one American airman is thought to have been executed at Dachau, and some AAF POWs were sent to the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp where some were put to death.

As Allied air forces took control of the skies over Europe in the summer of 1944, Adolf Hitler ordered the immediate execution of Allied flyers accused of committing certain acts. Named a Terrorflieger (terror flyers), the unfortunate Allied flyer would not be given a trial. However, the German Foreign Office expressed concern about shooting POWs and suggested that enemy airmen suspected of such offenses not be given the legal status of POWs. Following this advice, the Gestapo and Security Police informed captured Allied airmen that they were criminals, not POWs. Using this justification, the Gestapo and Security Police sent 168 captured Allied airmen (including 82 Americans) to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. These airmen had been shot down over France and turned over to the Gestapo and Secret Police by traitors in the French Resistance.

Arriving at Buchenwald on Aug. 20, 1944, these men received the same horrible treatment and beatings as the other inmates. After sleeping outside for the first three weeks, the 168 Allied airmen were moved into an overcrowded, 150-foot-by-30-foot hut along with another 757 inmates, including about 350 Gypsy boys aged from 8 to 14. Most of the Gypsy boys were removed (probably executed) to make "room" from the 168 Allied POWs, but they still slept five men to a bunk. With medical care being essentially non-existent, the injured and sick Allied POWs suffered immediately. On the night of Oct. 18-19, 1944,156 of the 168 were transported from Buchenwald, and they arrived at Stalag Luft III on Oct. 22. Earlier that year, the Gestapo had murdered 50 Allied POWs who had escaped from Stalag Luft III. Too sick to travel, 12 POWs remained at Buchenwald. Two of them died, including one American who died of pneumonia, and the other 10 were transported to the POW camps later.

Note: In 1999 the German government paid 34.5 million Deutschmarks in reparations to various survivors of the Holocaust who were U.S. citizens -- both civilian and military -- interned in German concentration camps during World War II. American POWs who had been sent to Buchenwald were among those receiving reparations.

Buchenwald, An Example
Germans built Buchenwald in 1937 as a work camp for the "undesirables" of Nazi society, mostly Jews and political prisoners. It later became one of a number of German "death camps." At war's end, as many as 60,000 people had died there. Even more died at such larger camps as Dachau and Auschwitz, which were run with greater "efficiency."

In later summer and autumn of 1944, 82 AAF and 86 British Commonwealth aviators were captives at Buchenwald. Most had been shot down over France and had made connections with the French Resistance in their effort to return to their units, as they were expected to do. They had received French identification papers and were dressed as civilians to avoid capture. A traitor within the French Underground betrayed them to the Germans, and they were captured. As Allied forces prepared to enter Paris, they were evacuated with a large number of political prisoners to Buchenwald in Weimar, Germany. They arrived after a harrowing five-day train ride jammed in boxcars with little food or water. There they were shaved bare and spent the next three weeks without shoes or shelter, sleeping on paving stones. A Canadian aviator described the daily ration as "a little bowl of soup made from grass or cabbage leaves, and an inch of bread and three little potatoes." One pilot lost more than 65 pounds during his six weeks there.

Eventually, the POWs and other prisoners were placed in a barracks, 600 men to a building designed for 250. They slept on wooden shelves, five to a bunk, so crowded that no one could turn over until all did at the same time. P-47 pilot Lt. L.C. Beck Jr. and Royal Air Force Flying Officer P.D. Hemmens died before the airmen were transferred to a POW camp in October-November 1944. There they still faced the hardships of imprisonment, but at least they were free from the horrors of a death camp.

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