Historical Perspective U.S. POWs in Communist Custody: World War II
"Thus, as far as former political prisoners were concerned, the official Soviet position was that all political prisoners had been released. With regard to the repatriation of displaced persons who found themselves in Red Army occupied territory at the end of the War, "not even verbal assurances were to be had."
World War II was a great military victory for the United States Armed Forces. In both the European and the Pacific theaters, the enemy unconditionally surrendered. However, despite the total victory in Europe by Allied forces, thousands and thousands of U.S. soldiers -- perhaps as many as 20,000 -- were never repatriated from prisoner of war (POW) camps, prisons and forced labor and concentration camps. These American soldiers were being held in Nazi prison camps, along with other Allied POWs and some Nazi captives, when they were overrun by the Red Army. Thus, hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs who had been held by the Nazis, as well as millions of Western European citizens, or Displaced Persons, came under Red Army control. Indeed, this number increased because General Dwight D.Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, decided to stop the U.S. and British drive eastward into Germany, in order to wait for Soviet forces driving West, so that U.S. and Soviet forces could meet in Berlin.

One such American GI was Martin Siegel, who was held prisoner in Stalag IV-B, Muhlberg (a Nazi POW camp in eastern Germany overrun by a Red Army tank battalion). Siegel was the U.S.POWs' intermediary and translator with Major Vasilli Vershenko was, "When were the U.S.POWs to be repatriated?" Vershenko said he was primarily concerned with the "Russian prisoners held in a separate compound at Stalag IV-B"as" they had to be interviewed individually since they felt that there were many cowards, traitors and deserters among them and they had to be dealt with expeditiously. Secondarily, with regard to the repatriation of U.S. and Allied POWs now under Red Army control, the Soviet Major stated "the Russians and the Americans had agreed to a pact wherein the Russians would receive `credits' for each American POW returned," and that repatriation of U.S. POWs was a "complex logistical matter."

The Russian Major's view of the repatriation process for U.S. and Allied POWs under Red Army control for financial or economic `credits' probably accurately reflected of Soviet repatriation policy. In fact, the Russian Major's view paralleled the assessment of the Soviet's repatriation policy of Allied POWs under Red Army control. Barker wrote in a report to the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Allied Headquarters that after more than four hours of discussions with his Red Army counterparts:

The SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters of the Allied European Forces] representives came to the firm conviction that British and American prisoners of war were, in effect, being held hostage by the Russians until deemed expedient by them to permit their release.This latter point was further borne out by subsequent events.

Meanwhile, Siegel, the American GI still held in Stalag IV-B (who is still alive) decided that as a result of the callousness of his [Major Vershenko's ] response and the officious tone in which this information [about repatriation ] was given, [it] gave me real pause...That night, my bunkmate, Cpl.William Smith of the 9th. Division shared our mutual concerns and [we] decided to take off on our own. The next evening, we `liberated' two Russian bicycles, got thru a gap in the wire where a Russian tank was parked and took off West to where we thought the American Army would be.

They made it safely to American lines, but only after a "two week adventure" that included making another escape after "being captured by a band of fanatical `Hitler Youth'" still at large in Soviet occupied Germany.

Siegel and his partner made a wise decision to escape. A cable from the Ninth United States Army to the Supreme Allied Headquarters dated May 17, 1945 describes the deteriorating conditions in Stalag IV-B Muhlberg camp after the two GIs escaped:

Reports received that 7,000 United States and British ex-PWs formerly in Mulburg (Stalag IV-B) and NOEREISA 8715-E need medical supplies, additional medical attention and food. Many have left because of conditions. Reports indicate camp leader doing all in his power to enforce STAY-PUT order. Russians alleged to have threatened to use force to prevent escape.

Thus, through completely different personal experiences, a GI and a General came to essentially the same conclusion about Soviet repatriation policy. The GI risded escape rather than trust the Soviets to repatriate him. The General concluded and reported to Supreme Allied Headquarters that:

British and American prisoners of war were, in effect, being held hostage by the Russians until deemed expedient by them to permit their release.

After Siegel--the intrepid GI-- and his partner escaped to Allied controlled territory, Siegel found that his concerns for other prisoners left behind at 1V-B were treated with initial skepticism, then annoyance at my persistence, and finally with reassurances that the matter `would be investigated.'

It should be noted that Major Vershenko's comments about economic `credits' were not wholly inaccurate. Weeks before V-E day (Victory in Europe) Soviets had requested a $6 billion credit line from the United States, the equivalent of $59.8 billion in 1991 dollars, or slightly more than the U.S. costs for the Gulf War. `Credits' from the United States, were, in fact, an active Soviet consideration throughout the repatriation period. Instead, the Secretary of State, prior to a mid-April 1945 meeting with his Soviet counterpart, Commissar Molotov, received a pre-meeting briefing memorandum, one of the points of which was the Soviet request for $6 billion.

The Soviet rationale for not repatriating Allied soldiers and citizens, however, was motivated by more complex and more repugnant reasons than credits along. In the memoirs of former Secretary of State under President Truman, James F. Byrnes, there appears an illuminating conversation the Secretary had with Molotov, the Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs. In September, 1945, several weeks after Japan's surrender, Byrnes recounted that while in London:

Mr.Molotov came to see me, on instructions from Moscow... [Molotov] wanted to complain of the way in which the surrender terms [with Japan] were being carried out. He complained particularly about the way the Japanese Army was being demobilized. It was dangerous, he said, merely to disarm the Japanese and send them home; they should be held as prisoners of war. We should do what the Red Army was doing with the Japanese it had taken in Manchuria--make them work...No one can say accurately how many Japanese prisoners have been taken to the Soviet Union. In mid-1947, the best guess was that apporzimately 500,000 were still there.

The problem of accounting for POW/MIAs was complicated by the fact that the Soviets were just as uncooperative in the repatriation of the millions of displaced civilians. In Europe, as well as in the Far East, the Soviets guarded a sea of prisoners--human capital and slave labor in their view---who were not only Allied and Axis POWs, but also hundreds of thousands of displaced Western European citizens, as well as Eastern European citizens, who desperately wanted to flee from Red Army occupied territory. Nationalities of smaller countries of Western Europe, like the Dutch, and Belgians, as well as formerly occupied countries like France, tragicially, had little military, political or diplomatic leverage with the Soviet government to secure the repatriation of their citizens at the end of the War. As a result, tens of thousands of Dutch and Belgians, and hundreds of thousands of French were never repatriated by the Soviets.

The French in particular bore the brunt the of Soviet "make them work" policy. This polict was implemented by the Soviets not only with regard to the Japanese POWs captured in the Pacific theater, but also with regard to hundreds of thousands of French, Dutch, Belgian, and other Western Europeans who were caught in Soviet occupied territory in Europe.

A window through which a glimpse of the fate of these citizens--in this particular case, French POWs -- can be seen is the following cable from the Allied Command's Mission in France, to the Supreme Allied Headquarters for all of Europe. Sent May 30, 1945 (Victory in Europe, VE day was May 7, 1945) the cable read:

Accordance your telephone request, cable from Fifteenth Army French Detachment to General CHERRIERE MMFA Hotel CONTINENTAL PARIS of 25 May is paraphrased for your information.

Report of Lt.D Havernas according to CONFIRMED reports, Russians still do not release thousands of French ex-PW's and civilians, forcing them to work. Many transferred eastwards to unknown destination. Pleasee inform high authority. 700 ex-PW's are evacuated daily from this area to UDINE. Civilians held under difficult food and accommodation conditions.

The next day, a cable detailing the magnitude of the masses of Allied prisoners of war and displaced citizens held in Soviet territory was sent from Supreme Allied Headquarters signed by Eisenhower, to the U.S. Military Mission in Moscow. Eisenhower wanted an explanation from the Soviets for the slow pace of repatriation of these citizens. The "discrepancies" between the Allies most up-to-date figures of various displaced Western European citizens and prisoners of war known to be in Soviet occupied territory, and the number actually repatriated by the Soviets, were outlined by Eisenhower.

Latest available displaced persons and prisoners of war figures show almost 1,600,000 Western European (French, Belgian, Dutch and Luxemborgeois) either repatriated from or at present held in SHAEF area. Soviet delegates at LEIPZIG conference stated only 300,000 Western Europeans in their area. Combined working party on European food supplies, composed of representatives from UNRRA, SHAEF, USSR, UK, and USA, including Soviet delegate LIUSHENKO, estimated approximately 3,000,000 displaced Western Europeans in enemy-held territory at beginning 1944. This discrepancy of over 100,000 Western Europeans is causing Dutch and French Governments considerable anxiety.

More than two weeks later, Eisenhower sent another cable to the U.S. Military Mission in Moscow with more detailed numbers of 'discrepancies'. Again Eisenhower requested a detailed Soviet response to his concerns over these unrepatriated prisoners of war and other Allied citizens in Red Army occupied territory. The cable, dated June 19,1945, stated:

A further approach to the Soviets regarding numbers of Western Europeans in Soviet occupied area of Eastern Europe is urgently necessary. About 1,200,000 French have been repatriated. Less than 100,000 remain in SHAEF-occupied area. French insist total POW and displaced persons is 2,300,000. Even allowing for several hundred thousand unaccounted trekkers, discrepancy is still very great. About 170,000 Dutch have been repatriated, with less than 25,000 in the SHAEF area. Total Dutch estimate of deportees is 340,000.

In response to Eisenhower's cable, the U.S.Military Mission in Moscow sent the Soviet government a letter dated June 20, 1945, parts of which are quoted below:

Dear General Golubev:
We have been requested by General Eisenhower to make an urgent appeal to you for an estimate of the number of displaced Western Europeans who are now in Soviet-occupied areas of Eastern Europe.

Thus far, about 1,200,000 French have been repatriated. Less than 100,000 French remain in German areas occupied by British-American forces. This makes a total of 1,300,000 French accounted for, exclusive of those who still remain in Soviet-controlled territory.French authorities insis that the total number of prisoners of war and displaced person amount to 2,300,000. Even allowing for several hundred thousand unaccounted individuals, there still remains a great discrepancy.

About 170,000 Dutch have been repatriated. Less than 25,000 Dutch still remain in Germany under control of British-American forces. However, the Dutch authorities estimate that there were orginally 340,000 Dutch nationals deported, thus leaving a great discrepancy.

The Belgian authorities also reported a discrepancy but it is comparatively smaller than those of the French and Dutch.

In the French and Dutch cases, the "discrepancy" figures are astonishing. Even assuming that a quarter of a million French citizens were "trekkers" -- a seemingly exaggerated estimate--heading West to Allied lines, 850,000 French citizens still were not repatriated from Red Army occupied territory.

With regard to the Dutch citizens, assuming one quarter of the total Dutch "discrepancy" number were "trekkers," them some 116,250 Dutch citizens still were not repatriated from Soviet occupied Europe. It is understandable, as Eisenhower stated in an earlier cable to the U.S.Military Mission in Moscow, that these figures were "causing the Dutch and French government considerable anxiety."

In late June, the U.S. Military Mission in Moscow sent Eisenhower a cable with the Soviet reply. The Soviet reply was not encouraging. The cable read:

Upon receipt of S-91662 dated 19 June, we presented the queries contained therein to [Lieutenant General] GOLUBREV [Soviet Assistant Administrator for Repatriation] and have received the following reply [from the Soviets]:

In answer to your letter of 20 June:

1.I do not have the exact date on the moving around of persons from Western Europe and therefore cannot say much about them.

2.I know that there have been freed by the Red Army:

French" About 250,000 of which 202,456 persons have already been sent home and about 50,000 who are getting ready to be sent home.

Belgians: 27,980 persons freed of which 25,920 have been sent home, the remainder in the process of being turned over.

The discrepancy between the Soviet numbers for both the French and the Dutch and SHAEF's numbers is unsettling, as is the Soviets' claim that they "cannot say much about" the hundreds of thousands of Western European soldiers and citizens who apparently disappeared in Red Army occupied territory.

However, even before Eisenhower had received his reply, the Soviets had informed U.S. military officials at a separate meeting in Halle, Germany, that "all political prisoners held in German concentration camps overrun by the Red Army had been released." Furthermore, Allied officials reported to the Secretary of State with respect to the "category of displaced persons, not even verbal assurances were to be had."

The results of the Allied-Soviet meeting in Halle, Germany, were detailed in a memo sent to the U.S. Secretary of State. The meeting produced an agreement on a plan for repatriation, agreed to by representatives of Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, and Supreme Command Red Army, at Halle, Germany, May 22, 1945, for the most expeditious overland delivery of Allied and Soviet ex-prisoners of war and displaced persons liberaes by the Allied Expeditionary Force and the Red Army. The two delegations were headed by Lieutenant General K.D. Golubev, Red Army, Soviet Assistant Administrator for Repatriation, and Major General R.W.Barker, U.S.A., Assistant Chief of Staff, G-1, SHAEF.

This meeting, more than any other, determined the fate of hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the Red Army occupied territory of Eastern Europe. This memorandum, which was sent June 1, 1945 to the U.S. Secretary of State, explains that at the Halle, Germany, meeting the Red Army refused to permit the Allies to fly transport aircraft into Soviet-occupied territory...Although General Golubev would not agree to the incorporation of a paragraph providing first priority delivery of U.S. and U.K. ex-prisoners of war, he gave his most solemn personal assurances that all U.S. and U.K. ex-prisoners of war would, in fact, be given preferential treatment.

A request for second priority for Western European ex-political deportees, in accordance with the desires of the Western European governments that such persons be repatriated before their respective ex-prisoners of war and other displaced persons, was countered by the flat assertion that all political prisoners held in German concentration camps overrun by the Red Army had been released and that there were, accordingly, no more political prisoners in Soviet-occupied territory. With respect to this category of displaced persons, not even verbal assurances were to be had.

Thus, as far as former political prisoners were concerned, the official Soviet position was that all political prisoners had been released. With regard to the repatriation of displaced persons who found themselves in Red Army occupied territory at the end of the War, "not even verbal assurances were to be had."

In anticipation of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens who would have to be repatriated in the wake of the Western allies and Red Army victory over the Nazi forces, the Western Allies and the Soviets agreed Feb. 11, 1945, at the Yalta Conference to provisions which would expedite their repatriation. These provisions allowed their respective military officers into Allied and Soviet controlled territory at various collection points in each country throughout Europe, in order to process, arrange for transportation and otherwise oversee the registration and the care and feeding of the soldiers who were to be repatriated. The locations where these repatriation officers were to be sent was agreed to, as well as that these officers would be assigned liaison officers to assist them in the repatriation process.

Less than a month after the signing of the Yalta agreement, in an URGENT TOP SECRET Personal Message to the President, U.S.Ambassador W. Averell Harriman cabled from Moscow:

Since the Yalta Conference General Deane and I have been making constant efforts to the Soviets to carry out this agreement in full. We have been baffled by promises which have not been fulfilled.

Specifically, Harriman stated in the same cable:

"I am outraged" that the Soviet Government has declined to carry out the agreement signed at Yalta in its other aspects, namely, that our contact officers be permitted to go immediately to points where our prisoners are first collected, to evaluate our prisoners, particularly the sick, in our own airplanes, or to send our supplies to points other than Odessa, which is 1,000 miles from point of liberation, where they are urgently needed.

For the past ten days the Soviets have made the same statement that Stalin has made to you,[FDR]namely, that all prisoners are in Odessa or entrained thereto, whereas I have now positive proof that this was not repeat not true on February 26, the date on which the statement was first made. This supports my belief that Stalin's statement to you is inaccurate.

...there appear to be hundreds of our prisoners wandering about Poland trying to loacte American contact officers for protection. I am told that our men don't like the idea of getting into a Russian camp. The Polish people and Polish Red Cross are being extremely hospitable, whereas food and living conditions in Russian camps are poor. In addition we have reports that there are a number of sick or wounded who are too ill to move. These Stalin does not mention in his cable. Only a small percentage of those reported sick or wounded arrive at Odessa.

Six days later Ambassador Harriman sent another cable to Washington, this time to the Secretary of State, Edward R. Stettinius, Jr. It deserves to be quoted at some length:

I assume the Department has been informed by the War Department of the great difficulties General Deane [head of the U.S. Military Mission to Moscow] and I have been having with the Soviet Government in regard to the care and repatriation of our liberated prisoners of war. In the beginning it appeared that the Soviet authorities were going to interpret our agreement substantially as we did, namely that we be allowed to send our contact officers to several points within Poland to which our prisoners first find their way, to fly in emergency supplies and to evacuate our wounded on the returning trips of the planes, although in Soviet planes rather than United States planes. We obtained authority for one contact team of an officer and doctor to go to Lublin with one plane load of supplies and they have done extremely useful work there. No other teams or supplies have since been permitted and authority for the Lublin team to remain has recently been withdrawn. The Soviets have now contended that Odessa is the only present camps and points of concentration referred to in the [Yalta] agreement to which our contact officers are to be permitted.

...Our prisoners have suffered serious hardships from lack of food, clothing, medical attention, etcetera, in finding a their way to concentration points in Poland and on the long rail trip to Odessa because we have been stopped from sending in our contact teams and emergency supplies. A considerable number of sick and wounded are still hospitalized in Olan. I have been urging for last two weeks General Deane be permitted to survey the situation with a Red Army officer. This was first approved in writing with the qualifications that arrangements must be made with Polish authorities. An officer of our military mission informally approached the Polish Embassy here and was advised that no Polish authorization was necessary as it was entirely with the competence of the Red Army. We have been unable, however, to get authorization for Deane's trip. It seems clear that the Soviets have changed their point of view during the last several weeks and are now rigidly determined that none of our officers shall be permitted in Poland.

I saw Molotov again today about the situation. He maintained that the Soviet Government was fulfilling its obligation under the agreement and both the Red Army authorities and the Polish Provisional Government objected to the presence of our officers in Poland. When I pressed him on what valid objection the Red Army could possible have, he pointed out that we had no agreement with the Polish Provisional Government. In spite of my contention that this was a Soviet responsibility he kept reverting to the above fact. I then directly asked him if he was implying that we should make such an arrangement with Poles and if so, whether the Red Army would remove its objections. He did not answer this question directly but left me with the impression that he wished me to draw that deduction. I am satisfied that the objection comes from [the] Soviet Government and not the Provisional Polish Government as our military mission had been in informal contact with the Polish Embassy here who have been extremely cooperative as have all Polish authorities including the Polish Red Cross to our prisoners in Poland.

I feel that the Soviet Government is trying to use our liberated prisoners of war as a club to induce us to give increased prestige to the Provisional Polish Government by dealing with it in this connection as the Soviet are doing to other cases. General Deane and I have not (repeat not) been able to find a way to force the Soviet authorities to live up to our interpretation of our agreement. Unless some steps be taken to bring direct pressure on the Soviets, our liberated prisoners will continue to suffer hardships, particularly the wounded and the sick.

...It is the opinion of General Deane and myslef that no arguments will induce the Soviets to live up to our interpretation of the [Yalta] agreement except retaliatory measures which affect their interests unless another direct appeal from the President should prove effective. We therefore recommend that the first step be a second request from the President to Marshal Stalin...In the meantime, however, we recommend further that the [State] Department and War Department come to an agreement on what retaliatory measures we can immediately apply in the event an unfavorable answer is received by the President from Marshal Stalin.

See Korean War