December 31, 2021
Every war-related museum – from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan – that I have visited celebrates our armed forces strength, power, bravery, and perseverance.
Except this one.
The National Prisoner of War Museum, part of the Andersonville National Historic Site, focuses on and commemorates American prisoners of war, both military and civilian.
This one brings you face to face with those men and women who fought on or were caught behind the front lines and were captured by the enemy. This museum tells their story poignantly and well.
Since the founding of our republic more than 500,000 Americans have been prisoners of war – 11,000 during the Revolutionary War, 350,000 during the Civil War, 4,000 during World War I, and 130,000 during World War II.
But what about conflicts where war wasn’t declared? What about civilians captured during a war? If you are captured during a war, are you a POW or something else? There’s no bright line that distinguishes POWs from other captives.
How you are treated depends on your captor. During World War II the Japanese treated all their captives harshly and with disdain. American servicemen captured during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts were treated particularly poorly. (The United States never declared war against North Korea or North Vietnam.)
The United States interned hundreds of German Americans during World War I and 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. More than 6,000 American civilians were interned by the Japanese during World War II.
If you became a POW all you were required to give your captors was your name, rank, and serial number. You had to follow your service branch’s code of conduct to resist interrogation, attempt to escape, and maintain morale. All of this was far easier said than done.
Beginning in 1793, Britain and France were at war for more than 20 years. The United States joined that war in 1812. It was during this war that one of the more fascinating artifacts was a ship model built by POWs using beef, pork, and mutton bones. Any activity that took a prisoner’s mind off his predicament was welcome.
Many of the displays were poignant, such as this page from an obituary journal kept by Capt. David Nash that recorded the names, ranks, dates, and causes of death of American prisoners of war held by the Japanese in Mukden, Manchuria.
Bureaucracy was alive and well in POW camps as this reduced ration notice shows.
What separated those POWs who lived through their ordeal and those who didn’t? One survivor of the Bataan Death March said they “never realized just how rotten the situation was. Others survived day to day – bullheaded stubbornness would be a good explanation.” Another POW in the Philippines said, “One of the rules I learned in keeping myself alive was to keep as clean as possible.”
Communicating with the outside world was almost impossible. POWs’ letters to and from their families were short and heavily censored. But at least a short letter or note let a POW’s loved one know they were still alive.
POWs were constantly bombarded with enemy propaganda. When new POWs arrived at a camp, they could give other POWs more up to date information on how the war was progressing. Another way was to build bootleg crystal radio sets using bartered, smuggled, and stolen parts.
While most POWs dreamed of escape, that’s all it was for most of them. Of the 91,000 American POWs in the European theater only 737 successfully escaped and returned to their own lines. The success rate was even lower in the Pacific theater and recaptured POWs were often executed.
Once POWs were liberated their ordeal wasn’t over. Many suffered from malnutrition and inadequate medical care. Diseases and infections such as malaria, tuberculosis, and gastrointestinal problems were poorly treated. Dental, vision, and hearing problems were largely ignored. Injuries and wounds suffered before and during their time as POWs festered. They carried the physical and psychological scars of their ordeals for the rest of their lives.