One by one, the eight World War II veterans took their places on stage in a ceremony 70 years in the making.
Two arrived in the Pentagon’s basement auditorium in wheelchairs. Others leaned on walkers or canes or escorts. One carried an oxygen tank.
A lifetime after they were held in a notorious internment camp in Switzerland, they would at last be recognized as prisoners of war.
These eight men and hundreds like them had once lived under the suspicion they had purposely bailed out of their bombers or crash-landed in neutral countries. At the height of the war, the chance of surviving a combat tour was as little as one in four.
Rumors of defection proved untrue. Those who ended up in Switzerland were forbidden to leave. Those caught trying to escape were sent to Wauwilermoos, a prison camp run by a Nazi sympathizer accused of war crimes. But because the POW medal recognized only service members held by enemies in declared armed conflicts, 143 airmen held at Wauwilermoos were ineligible.
Fifteen years of exhaustive research and dogged work by Army Maj. Dwight Mears ultimately led to an amendment recognizing as POWs any military member held captive under conditions similar to those held by the enemy in periods of armed conflict.
The medal was finally approved for 143 airmen held at Wauwilermoos in October. Mears’ grandfather, who died in the 1970s, was one of them.
On Wednesday morning, as a cool, steady rain fell outside, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh called Mears onto the stage to help present the POW medal to the eight who are still living.
One by one, their names were called. Lt. Col. James Misuraca. Maj. James Moran. First Lt. Paul Gambaiana. First Lt. James Mahon. Tech. Sgt. Alva Moss. Staff Sgt. John Fox. Sgt. William Blackburn. Sgt. George Thursby.
One by one, Welsh pinned the POW medal onto their lapels. One by one, they shook hands with Mears, the man who made the moment possible.
It started with a pair of old boots and an interest in family history. Mears was still a cadet at West Point when he saw Lt. George Mears’ Army Air Forces-issued boots from World War II. The elder Mears had tried to escape Switzerland in those ragged relics, and the heels were nearly worn through.
“I knew he had been shot down and interred, but I had no clear conception of what he had been through,” Mears said in an Air Force Times interview in October.
During a history class at West Point, Mears said, “I fell in love with history for the first time.”
He sought out his grandfather’s surviving crew members and talked to others interred at Wauwilermoos. He traveled to Switzerland, looked through thousands of pages of archives — many of them in French and German — and took photos of what he thought might be relevant. Over the years, he translated them into English. The research became the subject of Mears’ master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation.
What Mears wanted most was for the airmen to get the recognition he believed they deserved.
“Each of these men has their own story of how they ended up in Switzerland,” Welsh said at the ceremony. “These Americans were not allowed to leave the country. Many wanted to get back in the fight or return home to their families. Those who tried and were caught— the punishment was severe.”
Moss, a radio operator and waist gunner, parachuted out of his airplane when it lost an engine over Switzerland after a bombing mission of a German aircraft factory. He and the rest of his crew were immediately captured by Swiss soldiers. Moss spent nine weeks in a hospital from a shrapnel wound to the leg. He and six other airmen were sent to Wauwilermoos after trying to escape the country. He was released in February 1945, some seven months after he was imprisoned.
“I was just one of many that served,” Moss wrote in an accounting of the events. “I survived but I lost many friends.”
Moran landed his bomber in Switzerland when it took a hit from artillery fire on a bombing mission of a German plant manufacturing airplane and tank motors in July 1944. Sent to Wauwilermoos after his failed escape attempt, he slept on lice-infested straw beds and suffered from severe stomach pains brought on by malnutrition.
Moran was released in a prisoner exchange.
Misuraca planned an escape from Wauwilermoos with two other American pilots. They climbed over barbed wire fences, evaded sentry posts and guard dogs. “We hiked overnight,” he wrote of the experience. “Cold, wet and hungry, [we] finally spotted a country inn. In high school french, I asked a girl ... to contact the American legation.”
From there, the men were driven to a safe house on the Swiss-French border.
Misuraca went on to serve in the Korean War, flying 52 missions and serving as a radar operator and intelligence officer before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1964.
Gambaiana followed the progress of the Allies after the B-17 on which he was a co-pilot crash-landed in Switzerland in April 1944. He wanted badly to rejoin the fight but was caught at the Swiss border and sent to the camp.
“Conditions and treatment [were] harsh,” Gambaiana wrote. “There were no hygiene facilities, airmen slept on straw, rations were cut to the bare subsistence levels and served in slop cans. Latrines were surrounded in ankle-deep mud with sewage overflow. Red Cross aid packages were confiscated by the camp commandant, and there was no medical treatment available.”
Gambaiana was released in a prisoner exchange in February 1945 after four months at Wauwilermoos.
“After the war, many never talked about it because they just wanted to move on with their lives,” Welsh said.
For the family of Staff Sgt. Joseph Sinitsky, the stories came in bits and pieces over the decades, said his son, Thomas Sinitsky.
When Joseph Sinitsky died four months ago, he left behind a 1944 YMCA-issued wartime log filled with snapshots of the Swiss countryside. U.S. service members were relatively well-treated unless they tried to leave the country, which made these attempts all the more remarkable.
Sinitsky might have spent the rest of the war in the relative safety of Switzerland.
“He ended up trying to escape, and that was the end of it,” Thomas Sinitsky said. He spent four months in the prison camp before he was exchanged for two German prisoners in February 1945.
Thomas Sinitsky brought the wartime log to Wednesday’s ceremony, where he accepted the POW medal on behalf of his father.
Welsh looked out over all the other family members gathered in the auditorium, then spoke to the eight men on stage.
“They laugh, they love, they live today because of your strength, your resilience, your willingness to survive,” Welsh said. “Sons, daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren are your legacy of honor.”