For a former U.S. Army Air Force veteran, a seven-decade long wait ended when Col. James C. Hodges, the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and 87th Air Base Wing commander, presented the former prisoner of war the POW Medal for services during World War II, Jan. 27, 2014, in the presence of family, friends and hospital staff at the Schuylkill Center Nursing Home, Pottsville, Penn.
Former SSgt. Kenneth E. Youst was assigned to the 576th Squadron, 389th Bomber Group, 8th Air Force, based out of Hethel, England, as an aerial gunner before his B-24 Liberator bomber was forced to land in neutral Switzerland in March 18, 1944, after a bombing mission on Friedrichshafen, Germany.
“That was my 18th combat mission out of England before being shot down,” said the 92-year-old Youst, who is one of 11 surviving Airmen who were interned at Camp Wauwilermoos. “I remember moving over in the aircraft and hearing a loud noise. When I looked, there was a large hole where I had been standing.”
The 389th BG bombing mission over Friedrichshafen suffered the loss of 14 aircraft and heavy damages to nine other bombers by enemy fighter and anti-aircraft fire, totaling 154 casualties.
Due to the long-range nature of bombing missions over occupied Europe, Allied bombers initially had no fighter escort to protect them from German fighters and had few options when they sustained heavy damage to their aircraft. The loss of fuel, damage to engines or mechanical failure made the return trip to England very unlikely, if not impossible for Youst’s crew.
“Five out of the six planes I was with were shot down by German fighters and our plane suffered some damage,” he said. “We crossed over the Swiss border and were escorted to land at Dubendorf Field near Zurich by Swiss planes.
Allied Airmen in the custody of the Swiss government were considered internees and treated almost identical to POWs under the laws of war, except that by definition, an internee is held in a neutral state. Airmen caught attempting to escape while interned, were moved to punishment camps that differed very little from German POW camps, and were patrolled day and night by armed sentries with guard dogs.
“I was able to make my escape from Wauwilermoos, back to England on my third attempt,” Youst said. “I had been held as a prisoner in Switzerland for more than 11 months.”
Wauwilermoos Military Prison was established in 1940 in Lucerne, Switzerland and held many nationalities including Swiss criminals, according to the website for the Swiss Internees Association. Prison conditions were severe and consisted of wooden single-wall constructions surrounded by several rows of barbed wire. Prisoners were forced to sleep on boards covered with dirty straw, use poor hygiene facilities and received little medical care.
“I met up with American soldiers in France and was detained for five days until they could confirm my identity,” Youst said. “From there, I was flown back to England and later found out that my squadron had moved.”
Youst returned to the states on March 26, 1945, and separated from the AAF from Regional Station Hospital in Patterson Field, Ohio, Sept. 14, 1945.
On Jan. 3, 2013, President Barack H. Obama signed the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2013. Section 584 of the act modified Title 10, Section 1128 to allow award of the POW Medal “to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the armed forces, was held captive under circumstances not covered by the 1985 statue, but which the appropriate service secretary finds were comparable to those circumstances under which persons have generally been held captive by enemy armed forces during periods of conflict.”
This amendment was a direct result of the denial of dozens of requests for this medal by Airmen who were confined in Wauwilermoos prison camp for escape attempts.
According to the amendment authors, “these individuals were held in conditions comparable to those in which POWs are held by enemy armed forces.”
The amendment is expected to allow the award for any U.S. Airman confined in Wauwilermoos for attempting to escape.