An affecting wide-angle overview of the POW experience during World War II.
Drawing on interviews with more than 150 U.S. and German soldiers who were interned, Carlson (History/Western Michigan Univ.) offers a judiciously organized survey that lets a host of exprisoners of war speak for themselves. He first addresses the severe mental shock sustained by combatants who were taken captive on the battlefield or (in the case of downed airmen and D-day paratroopers) behind the lines. The author next focuses on the physical hardships, short rations, and other privations endured by Americans confined in the Third Reich's typically primitive camps; by contrast, their German counterparts who sat out the fighting in Stateside lockups had a far easier time of it. In some instances, moreover, American POWs identified as Jewish, or incorrigible, or suspected of being spies were sent to concentration camps; over 50 years later, their matter-of-fact recollections of the ghastly events they experienced bear eloquent witness to humankind's infinite capacity for inhumanity. Carlson goes on to debunk the Hollywood myth that escape was a preoccupation of either Allied or German POWs; precious few ever made it beyond the wire, or even tried. Covered as well is the grisly fate of informers as well as undercover agents who tried and failed to infiltrate inmate populations on either side of the Atlantic and, the Geneva Convention notwithstanding, the dilatory pace of repatriation from the US. While almost all American interns were freed by their own or Soviet troops before VE Day, fewer than 75,000 of the 380,000-odd Germans held in the US were sent home in 1945; in addition, many of those who made it back to Europe in 1946 spent another three years as POWs in England or France.
A scholar's illuminating rundown, complete with telling anecdotal detail, on a great war's largely forgotten men.