HOME > BOOKS > PRISONERS

The Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2003

Books

The Perils of Captivity

By DANIEL FORD

By the end of 1944, the Allied armies had driven Germany back almost to its prewar boundaries. To keep its prisoners of war from an early liberation, the Third Reich began to move them into the heartland. That migration is the subject of "The Last Escape" (Viking, 520 pages, $29.95) -- no escape at all, really, but a terrible, pointless exercise that was arguably one of the great war crimes of the 20th century.

That winter, some 275,000 British, Commonwealth and American soldiers and airmen had been held in stalags -- short for "stammlager," or long-term camp. Though their treatment was rigorous, it was seldom brutal, as contrasted with the experience of the much larger population of Russian prisoners of war, who were routinely starved and beaten.

Which is not the same as saying that the Anglo-Americans enjoyed the good life. As John Nichol and Tony Rennell describe the POWs in their affecting history: "They had been behind barbed wire forever, or so it felt -- in that debilitating state of being unfree, eternally hungry, deprived of love and comfort, and scarred by the wasted years and the humiliation of captivity." (Mr. Nichol knows this territory at first hand: He was a prisoner of the Iraqis in Gulf War I.)

[The Perils of Captivity]
War is hell -- not least for prisoners of war.

Then the migration started. In December 1944, the POWs were sent on the road and the fabled German efficiency broke down. There were dozens of such odysseys, and each deserves to be called a death march. Prisoners were marched west to avoid the Russian army and east to avoid the British and American ones, then north and south and sometimes both, in spasms of panicky indecision.

Each of their stories is a howl of anguish, and the only way to grasp them is to focus on one: Pvt. Les Allan, for example, captured at Dunkirk in May 1940. He was rousted out in the middle of the night, a few days before Christmas 1944. Thinking that this was just another "appell," or roll-call, he donned wooden clogs instead of his boots. He had to march in them for more than three months and nearly 600 miles. When he got home, in May 1945, he was an old man of 24, and his feet were permanently damaged.

The marches were exacerbated by a brutal winter. Men froze to death, died of dysentery and were shot by German guards or rampaging Allied aircraft. They were so weak, and their sanitary facilities so vile, that they lived in dread of falling into the cesspits that were their latrines and of drowning there. They slept in pigsties for warmth. They ate horses that had died from disease, uncooked if need be, down to the very hide and hair. Many of them lost a third of their body weight and some lost half. The book includes photographs of the worst cases at a stalag in Fallingbostel (between Hamburg and Hanover): They have the matchstick limbs and gaping clavicles of concentration-camp victims.

Could anything have been worse than that? Oh yes, as Ralph Rentz testifies in "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (Michigan State University Press, 236 pages, $24.95). A prisoner of the Japanese on the island of Java, he came home so nearly insane that he was trussed in a straitjacket for one leg of his journey. Weighing 100 pounds, his right lung collapsed from tuberculosis, his feet embedded with debris and hard as hooves from three years of working barefoot in the jungle, he was such an appalling sight that an Army doctor cried out: "We should have killed all those Japs with the atomic bomb." His parents protested that the Army had put another man in his bed -- and they weren't entirely wrong, as Mr. Rentz admits. Skin grafts from cadavers made his soles soft again but did little for his heart.

Though the book comes recommended by TV anchor Tom Brokaw, it is curiously flat, with the narrator standing aside from his story. Mr. Rentz's captivity was so awful that he didn't really remember it but reconstructed the lost years as a novelist might. Like the ruined man who survived the war, the book weeps only when he is safely home again.

Compared with the wretches on Java and at Fallingbostel stalag, Allied flyers who nursed their crippled aircraft to neutral territory could expect better treatment. But their ease was only comparative, as Cathryn Prince relates in "Shot From the Sky" (Naval Institute Press, 248 pages, $29.95). More than 1,000 Americans were interned in Switzerland by 1945, most of them lodged in vacant hotels and given adequate if spartan care. But anyone unlucky or rebellious enough to be sent to the "penitentiary camp" at Wauwilermoos, near Lucerne, found himself hostage to a psychopath as cruel as any to be found across the border in Nazi Germany. Postwar, the camp commander was imprisoned, fined and deprived of his rights as a Swiss citizen, though not for long.

Ms. Prince's study of a mostly overlooked chapter of World War II is proof, if any be needed, that captivity in itself is a terrible thing and that atrocities will happen whenever one individual is given unchecked power over another.

Mr. Ford is the author of the novel "Incident at Muc Wa," upon which the film "Go Tell the Spartans" was based.

  • 'The Last Escape' at Amazon
  • United States - Britain - France - Germany - Japan - Canada

  • 'Can't Take That Away' at Amazon:
  • United States - Britain - France - Germany - Japan - Canada

  • 'Shot From the Sky' at Amazon:
  • United States - Britain - France - Germany - Japan - Canada