Read about prisoners of war during World War II.
In war, soldiers tried to kill as many of the enemy in battle as they could. However, if the enemy soldiers put down their weapons and surrendered, the accepted practice was to take them as prisoners of war (POW).
This did not always happen as troops on both sides killed unarmed soldiers. Soviet and German troops seemed especially to treat each other brutally. But for the most part, unarmed soldiers were taken as prisoners.
A meeting called by the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1929 set forth requirements for the treatment of prisoners of war. These requirements were called the Geneva Convention and were signed by 47 countries. This included all the countries involved in World War II except for the Soviet Union.
This agreement defined a POW as a uniform-wearing member of a military unit (this excluded spies who would not be in uniform). It said that POWs must be humanely treated at all times, and allowed to communicate with their families. It also stated that a prisoner’s food, clothing, and shelter should be equal to their captor’s own troops.
Except for prisoners of the United States and Britain, this almost never happened. Even when the country in general adhered to the convention, prisoners could still be treated badly by guards.
Germany generally followed the Geneva Convention with prisoners captured on the Western Front—mostly American and British troops. They did not follow it on the Eastern Front with Soviet troops.
The Soviet Union also did not follow the convention with German troops. Estimates are that while than less than one percent of Americans died in German control, 69 percent of Soviet soldiers died in German camps. Nearly 80 percent of German prisoners died in Soviet hands.
Even though the Germans treated the Americans and British better, life in a prisoner of war camp was still difficult. Prisoners often did not get enough to eat, and medical care was not very good. The emotional stress of being a prisoner and not seeing your family was also very great.
The Japanese, who had signed the Geneva Convention, did not follow it. About 38 percent of American prisoners died in Japanese hands. Some died from inadequate diet or disease, while others were executed. Even more captured Chinese soldiers died.
One of the more notorious incidents of the war was the treatment of 76,000 American and Filipino soldiers who were surrendered on the peninsula of Bataan in the Philippines in April 1942. They were forced to march 65 miles to a prisoner camp. Anyone who fell behind was killed. It’s estimated that as many as 11,000 died on the march, which became known as the Bataan Death March.
Until the last months of the war, the Allies didn’t capture many Japanese. Their soldiers followed an ancient code of conduct called Bushido—the way of the warrior. This meant they felt they should fight to the death, committing suicide if necessary.
The United States often brought its German and Italian prisoners of war back to the states for imprisonment. American prisoner-of-war camps were located in almost every state.
Tennessee had 11 camps, including four large ones: Camp Crossville, in an old CCC camp near Crossville, Camp Forrest at Tullahoma, Camp Campbell near Clarksville, and the Armed Service Forces Depot at Memphis. In general, prisoners in American camps were treated very well, with prisoners allowed to go for walks outside the camps.Go to this Tennessee Library and Archives’ site to see a story about one Tennessean who was held as a prisoner of war (when at the site, click on left menu “View collection images.”)
- A photograph of Knoxville POW Bill Luttrell holding a number identification. Tennessee State Museum Collection
- An identification card issued to Hardy Mitchener when he became a prisoner of war after his airplane was shot down over Germany in 1944. Follow the link in the copy to see more items associated with Mitchener. Tennessee State Library and Archives
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