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INTERNATIONAL: The Prisoners

7 minute read
TIME

The controversy over treatment of war prisoners reached a climax of confusion last week.

> A U.S. correspondent, visiting a prison camp in India, reported that thousands of captured Italians live in luxury they could never know at home. They tend gardens, sunbathe, play football, grow fat on abundant rations. Miserably paid in their own army, they now receive British Army pay (small compared with U.S. pay). General Annibale (“Electric Whiskers”) Bergonzoli, pleasantly housed with several other generals, has been seen lolling along in a native tonga (cart) toward a nearby village, where the captured officers are popular because they have so much money to squander. This situation is altogether proper and legal: Britain is merely observing the Geneva Convention, which 29 nations adopted in 1935 to govern the treatment of prisoners.

> British M.P.s declared in the House of Commons that British prisoners in Italy are allowed to hear only Italian and German music, while British authorities continue to give German and Italian prisoners liberal rations of Wagner, Brahms and Verdi.

> Berlin announced that the German Government is about to repudiate the Geneva Convention, declared that the Allies are inviting and will get “a war of atrocities.”

> Tokyo made a prodigious fuss about the captivity, trial and punishment of U.S. flyers who fell into Japanese hands after the bombing of Tpkyo. With the caution accorded only to vital international questions, Secretary Stimson and the U.S. State Department left the question of retaliation for future settlement. ^ Ottawa reacted with equal sensitivity to news about the handling of German prisoners in Canada.

These incidents, in themselves, did not deserve the noise which the world’s rulers made about them. London and Washington obviously believed that Berlin and Tokyo were up to something. The welfare of the prisoners was of immediate concern. But beyond that some graver issue was hidden behind the screen of threat, recrimination and reticence.

Rulers in Chains? The Germans began to manufacture the issue last month. They declared that British commandos had bound a few German prisoners taken in a minor raid on the Channel Islands. The Germans then announced that British and Canadian prisoners taken at Dieppe would be chained in retaliation. After much cogitation by Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet, the British announced that an equivalent number of German prisoners would be manacled until the Allied prisoners were unchained.

The Germans now had their issue, and they began to use it. They dragged in President Roosevelt’s recent statement that Nazi leaders would be tried and punished by United Nations tribunals after the war (TIME, Aug. 31). Berlin propagandists suddenly associated the chaining of prisoners with the allegation that the British planes had bombed German hospitals in North Africa. They alleged that a German flyer had been hanged in the tatters of his own parachute. They screamed that German prisoners in Canada had been scalped.

A new pattern of home propaganda in Germanv became clear. The Nazi leaders were telling the German people that they could expect nothing but the most savage treatment if Germany lost the war. Simultaneously, an equally clear pattern of foreign propaganda, beamed to the U.S. and British people, began to appear. It was a complex of insidious suggestion: that the Germans were going to practice new cruelties on their prisoners, that the Churchill and Roosevelt Governments were cruel enough to reply in kind, that they were too weak to reply in kind. If this was the dilemma which vexed London and Washington, it was serious enough to require strong and careful handling.

News from Shangri-La. The Berlin radio played up the Tokyo reports about the U.S. flyers. So did the U.S. press—and, in addition to concern for the flyers, Americans once again had cause to worry about the accuracy of official war reports from Washington.

Everyone remembered the vast lift to U.S. spirits which followed the news that

Tokyo had been bombed. Everyone remembered how Hero Jimmy Doolittle (obviously coached) had said: “Not one U.S. plane was shot down and none was damaged to an extent which precluded its proceeding to its final destination.” When Tokyo announced last week that the Japanese would severely punish four captured airmen for their “inhuman act” in bombing Tokyo, everyone thought it was more Jap eyewash. Then the Japs came out with names and addresses (Lieut. William J. Farrow, of Darlington, S.C.; Lieut. Dean E. Hallmark, Dallas, Tex.; Sergeant Harold A. Spatz, Lebo, Kans.; Corporal Jacob D. Deshazer, of Madras, Ore.).

War Secretary Stimson said: “It is possible that a very few of the crew members were forced down in territory occupied by the Japanese when they ran out of gasoline, and have been captured.” He said that the names given by the Japanese were similar to those on the official list of missing men. Later, when the Japs announced four more names, one was confirmed (Lieut. George Barr, of Queens Village, N.Y.).

If Tokyo’s purpose was to frighten U.S. airmen with threats of savage punishment (“including the death penalty”), Tokyo had failed. If an incidental purpose was to further Berlin’s prisoner-propaganda, the Japs had succeeded. If their purpose was to discredit U.S. official spokesmen, they had a certain measure of success. The Office of War Information argued that there were sensible—but secret—reasons for withholding the fact that some flyers had landed in Japanese territory. If so, this did not excuse falsification, and it did not better the plight of the captured pawns.

News from Bowmanville. To the considerable list of items which the U.S. press must treat “with discretion,” OWI last week, for the first time, added the whole subject of prisoners of war. The prisoners immediately concerned in this ruling were not the American flyers in Japan, but German prisoners in Canada.

The publication of a brief story in TIME’S Oct. 26 issue revealed the extreme importance which the Canadian and U.S. Governments attached to the subject. TIME, failing to note that its information had not been submitted to Canadian censors, reported that German prisoners at Bowmanville rioted when their guards attempted to manacle them (after the Dieppe prisoners had been chained by the Germans). The Canadian Government had evidently intended to suppress the story. When the story came out, the Canadian Government made a strong protest to the U.S. State Department. Though the protest seemed designed to discredit the substance of the story, actually Ottawa confirmed the fact that there had been a riot. TIME was roundly rebuked for certain inaccuracies.

In the tense interplay between governments last week, details assumed great importance. One such detail was the fact that rifles—not machine guns—were used to fire warning shots over the heads and at the feet of the rioters. Others: no tear gas was used; food was regularly delivered to the prisoners, even when some of them went on a two-day hunger strike.

Who Are the Guilty? Pundit Walter Lippmann wrote: “[Hitler] will not provoke us into a competition in atrocities. . . . For our own self respect, and as the wisest military policy as well, we must continue to assure troops who surrender . . . fair and honorable treatment.”

Wrote Pundit Dorothy Thompson: “It is now clear what all this means.” Her major conclusion: Germany and Japan, inviting a war of atrocities, hope that the U.S. and British people will prefer peace negotiations to such a war. Miss Thompson also suggested that the Allies turn the German weapon upon Germany: “Whatever reprisals we take must be reprisals that divide the German nation and illustrate our policy of punishing only the truly guilty.”

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