A telegraph informs Lt. George Mears' family that he was reported missing March 18, 1944. (Courtesy of the Mears family)
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Lt. George Mears, a World War II B-17 pilot, received the POW Medal after extensive research by his grandson, Army Maj. Dwight Mears, a professor at West Point. (Courtesy of the Mears family)
Lt. George Mears, top left, was assigned to the 511th Squadron, 351st Bombardment Group (Heavy), 8th Air Force. Mears and then-1st Lt. James Mahaffey, top right, were imprisoned at Wauwilermoos, a Swiss concentration camp in World War II. Against all odds, the entire crew survived the war. (Courtesy of the Mears family)
Army Maj. Dwight Mears (Courtesy of the Mears family)
Army Maj. Dwight Mears was a cadet at West Point the first time he saw his grandfather’s Army Air Force-issued boots from World War II.
Lt. George Mears, a bomber pilot, died before his grandson’s birth. But his widow had hung onto some of the sentimental relics, storing them in the garage of their New Jersey home.
George Mears had escaped from Switzerland in those black leather boots in January 1945, 10 months after his badly damaged B-17 went down in Zurich. 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,” Dwight Mears said. “I inferred he hadn’t been mistreated in any way. Later, I discovered he was.”
So were dozens of others. But in 1943 and 1944, rumors of airmen defecting to neutral countries to escape the war were rampant. The stigma of those who’d crash-landed in territories such as Switzerland and Sweden persisted despite military investigations that disproved it. Some were later refused medical benefits and decorations for their imprisonment.
What began as Dwight Mears’ interest in family history would turn into a 15-year journey of research, discovery and, ultimately, a crusade to ensure history got his grandfather’s story — and the thousands of stories like his — right.
POW in neutral territory
Dwight Mears was still weighing his career options in the late 1990s as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was interested in aviation; he’d gotten his fixed wing pilot’s license in his free time.
Since his grandfather was a bomber pilot, “I thought it would be worth looking into,” he said. “I was about to do something very similar.”
He would go on to fly Army attack helicopters until he was injured in a crash during a security mission in Iraq in 2003. But it was during a history class while still at West Point that Dwight Mears “fell in love with history for the first time,” he said.
Mears began conducting first-person historical research, seeking out his grandfather’s surviving crew members, including the navigator on that fateful bombing mission over a German airfield on March 18, 1944. A German fighter struck Lt. George Mears’ B-17, blowing a hole in the fuselage, shooting out two engines and starting an oil fire. The B-17 dove from more than 18,000 feet to 5,000 feet before the pilot and copilot were able to regain control.
They knew they wouldn’t make it back to England and headed for Switzerland — a better option, they believed, than landing in enemy territory. The bomber’s landing gear collapsed on impact. George Mears’ crew was able to destroy the plane’s secret equipment before they were taken for interrogation and internment by the Swiss.
Six months later — after Allied forces arrived at the border of France and Switzerland — George Mears and three other officers tried to escape. They made it to the border before they were arrested by Swiss authorities and sent to a federal prison camp called Wauwilermoos, run by a Nazi sympathizer later accused of war crimes.
At least 161 Americans caught trying to escape were sent there. Then-2nd Lt. Paul Gambaiana was one of them.
“We went down just before D-Day. We wanted to get back to our base so we attempted to leave Switzerland, and they got us and put us there. It was a Swiss concentration camp. About the only thing I can remember ... we had cabbage soup which was hot water and two leaves of cabbage floating around,” Gambaiana, 92, said in a telephone interview from his home in Iowa. “The rest I have put away and forgotten. I’m trying to forget the whole thing.”
Another survivor, James Misuraca, gave a more detailed account of Wauwilermoos: A compound of single-story buildings surrounded by barbed wire. Armed Swiss guards with dogs. Processing by the commandant, “a hater of Americans, a martinet who seemed quite pleased with our predicament.” Sleeping on lice-infested straw.
On Nov. 1, 1944, Misuraca, who’d arrived Oct. 10, and two other American officers made an escape. They’d timed the rounds of the guards, climbed out a window and over wire fences and walked for miles. A U.S. Legation officer drove them to Geneva. On Nov. 15, they reached the Allied lines.
Gambaiana, like many of those imprisoned at Wauwilermoos, returned home after the war and led a quiet life. He became a math and science teacher and, with his wife of 63 years, raised a family of eight children.
Most had never shared their stories until Dwight Mears came calling. Survivors gave accounts of filthy living quarters, of skin rashes and boils, he said.
“All reported that they were underfed. Some reported being held in solitary for trying to escape. Some went in weighing in the 180s and 190s” and came out 50 pounds lighter.
“A lot of these airmen had bottled up these experiences because of such widespread rumors. Some of them even believed their peers had defected. The Air Force even believed it at the highest levels. Army Air Forces commander Gen. Henry Arnold personally ordered his subordinate commands to investigate whether they were defecting to neutral countries,” Mears said. “They were a little concerned they had a morale crisis on hand. It was so risky to be a bomber. Only a quarter were finishing their missions.”
As Dwight Mears listened to the stories of the survivors in the early 2000s, “I had the early idea it might be possible to recognize them as POWs,” he said. “I came to the realization it would make more sense to apply for other living internees. There were many at the time. There are not as many now.”
He applied to the National Personnel Records Center on their behalf in 2000. After winding through the bureacracy for six years, the applications were ultimately disapproved.
A battle for recognition
Dwight Mears made multiple trips to Switzerland, where he searched thousands of pages of archives.
“I took a digital camera and a giant bag of batteries and data cards and took pictures of the documents that might be relevant,” he said.
Over the years, he translated the documents from French and German into English.
The research became the subject of his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation. He is now an assistant professor of history at West Point.
When his early efforts seeking POW Medals for the surviving internees failed, Dwight Mears petitioned the Air Force Board for Corrections of Military Records, with whom he sparred over legal language for years.
For Dwight Mears, the lack of recognition “was incomprehensible,” he said. “I believe they were legally entitled to it. Even if you could argue they were not, then the law should encompass these people.”
According to his research:
■When the POW Medal was created in 1985, only service members held by enemies in declared armed conflicts were eligible. It was widened in 1989 to also include those imprisoned by hostile foreign forces under similar conditions. But the amendment wasn’t properly applied.
■In 2010, the House Armed Services Committee directed then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates to look into why the POW Medal was awarded to some Wauwilermoos prisoners but not others.
■The Pentagon responded that since Switzerland was neutral — and therefore not hostile to the U.S. — the internees were not eligible for the decoration.
That was a low point for Dwight Mears. But he wasn’t ready to give up just yet. His efforts had gained the support of former Air Force general counsel Ann Petersen, as well as Acting Secretary Eric Fanning and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, he said.
Dwight Mears cleared the final hurdle this year.
The fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act included an amendment allowing the defense secretary to award the POW Medal to any service member held captive under conditions “comparable to those circumstances under which persons have generally been held captive by enemy armed forces during periods of armed conflict.”
On Oct. 15, Lt. George Mears was posthumously awarded the POW Medal.
It also went to 140 other members of the Army Air Force held captive at Wauwilermoos, only 12 of whom are still alive. But for relatives of both the living and dead, it is like a family heirloom, “like reading their parents’ diary. It’s a transcript of what happened to them 70-something years ago — in many cases, a defining event in their lives,” Dwight Mears said. “It’s as important to them as it is to me.”
He is coordinating a ceremony for the survivors and next of kin.