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What to Do With Enemy Prisoners?

What to Do With Enemy Prisoners?

By Richard Reeves - June 6, 2009

BERLIN -- On Sept. 14, 1948, Capt. Kenneth Slaker of Lincoln, Neb., was making his sixth flight as a Berlin Airlift pilot, bringing food and fuel to the World War II enemy capital, which was blockaded on land and on rivers by the army of the Soviet Union. The United States Air Force, along with Great Britain's Royal Air Force, was trying to keep alive more than 2 million people in West Berlin, which was surrounded by East Germany and hundreds of thousands of soldiers of the Red Army.

Slaker knew the way. He had flown 50 bombing runs over Berlin in 1944. The briefing this day, as the Soviet-American alliance of the war was deteriorating into "Cold War," had ended:

"The Russians say they will shoot down any aircraft that strays out of the Berlin air corridor, and that captured airlift pilots will be treated as spies. ... If you should find yourself down in the Soviet Zone, we cannot say that you should turn yourself in, or that you should try to escape. There is no published or firm policy on this, and it would be up to you or your crew as to what action you would want to take."

Both engines of Slaker's C-47 cut out over East Germany's Harz mountains. He and his co-pilot, Lt. Clarence Steber of Memphis, Tenn., bailed out less a thousand feet above the ground. Slaker landed in a potato field and was unconscious for four or five hours. He heard German voices when he came to at dawn and crawled into a forest. Standing and turning, in great pain, he walked straight into an East German farmer.

"I'm an American pilot on the airlift," said Slaker, who spoke some German. The German, whose name was Rudolph Schnabel, reached into a coat pocket and showed the pilot the discharge papers he received after two years as a prisoner of war in an American camp outside Kearney, Neb.

"Americans were good to me," Schnabel said in workable English. "Americans capture me, save my leg." He pulled up his pants to show scars on his leg, which had been put back together in an American field hospital after he was run over by a tank. To make a long story short, Schnabel recruited friends and smuggled Slaker across the border to an American checkpoint in West Berlin.

It seems to me that there is something to be learned about the handling of the 240 enemy combatants at Guantanamo by remembering how we handled more than 400,000 prisoners of war inside the United States from 1942 to 1947.

Schnabel, a corporal in the Wehrmacht, the German Army, was one of more than 380,000 German prisoners of war kept in 511 POW camps in the United States. Most of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps ended up in Texas for years, working for local farmers, building roads, being paid 80 cents an hour to buy cigarettes and beer in their own canteens. Many Texans, in fact, resented the camps, built strictly according to international law and the Geneva Conventions for treatment of prisoners, calling them "Fritz Ritzes."

A few prisoners escaped -- it wasn't hard -- but were usually found on the main street of the nearest town, looking in store windows or at girls. Many later came back and became American citizens. When locals complained to the press or to their congressmen, according to "The Handbook of Texas": "The War Department defended its policy by pointing out the strategic reward of treating prisoners well: Enemy troops were surrendering rather than fighting."

There were also tens of thousands of Japanese and Italian POWs in the camps, mostly in the Midwest and South. More than a few American towns, Houlton, Maine, for one, invited the prisoners back in later years for joint celebrations of those years.

That is not to say that Americans are angels or that there was no mistreatment or torture or murdering of captured enemies in the past, particularly after American GIs saw Nazi concentration camps. West German investigators concluded in 1971 that tens of thousands of German prisoners were beaten and starved -- and 5,000 to 20,000 died -- in U.S. Army open air camps run near Cologne. Interestingly, those men were officially denied POW status and Geneva Conventions protections simply by reclassifying them as "disarmed enemy forces."

Now, of course, we have another name for some prisoners, "enemy combatants" -- and some argue that a couple of hundred of them are so dangerous they are not covered by any legal protections and that the United States is not strong enough to allow them to be tried or incarcerated on our own soil. Torture and illegal detention are not the tools of greatness, and if we could handle hundreds of thousands of uniformed prisoners, including 35 German generals and hundreds of fanatic U-Boat officers, we should be able to figure out how to deal with the bad guys and maybe some not-so-bad guys locked up all these years in Cuba.

Copyright 2009, Universal Press Syndicate

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Richard Reeves

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