Proper Treatment of War Prisoners


By 1st LT. NEWTON L. MARGULIES, Assistant Judge Advocate, Jefferson Barracks, Mo.

Delivered before the Downtown Optimists Club, St. Louis, Mo., April 27, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 477-480.

(Delivered with the permission of the Commanding General of the Fourth Service Command, but does not necessarily reflect the views of the War Department.)

WHEN your Mr. Ulbright introduced me speaking of glowing qualifications, he was very kind but, incidentally, most inaccurate. You can see that for yourself. Look at the Sergeant who has briefly but tellinglyspoken. I have no campaign ribbons such as he has, and I have no overseas stripes upon my sleeve; from the point of view of foreign service, I am standing here in front of you quite naked.

I have hopes, however. I understand that Washington is to put out a small green insignia to indicate "Service outside of one's home county." Moreover, I received a letter from Jamesville, Wisconsin, today—the home of the Parker fountain pen, you know—and according to their computations, I have used more gallons of ink than, well, anyway, they have nominated me to the enviable position of full colonel in the Paragraph Troops.

Really, when Mr. Ulbright proposed that I speak here this afternoon, my mind raced back to the peace years; and for good reason to my first visit in the City of New York. Fresh from the plains of South Dakota, I was mighty impressed by the hundreds thronging the avenues, the massive buildings, and the flashing electric signs—so as soon as I could, I left my hotel to just "see the city."

I began to stroll. I looked at windows, at faces, at the limousines. I walked—well, I'll never know how far—and then I saw such a flow of people I realized that it was 4:30 or 5:00, the traffic became oppressive, and I decided to go back to the hotel.

I started to return, and found I could not. I walked to one corner, then another and then another, and suddenly realized I was lost.

I didn't want to ask just a stranger any give-away questions, so I looked for a policeman. I saw one directing traffic. He was a big, burly fellow, carrying all the dignity of his office. The more I looked at him the bigger he grew; he seemed to be doing such a good job out there in the middle of the street defending himself, that I hesitated to go out there too.

I looked around and saw a curly-headed newsboy, hawking his papers. I went to him, and in a kindly voice asked, "Sonny, can you direct me to the Hotel New Yorker?" He leaned back, looked me over with a cocky professional appraisal, and said, "Mi-mi-mister, da-da-da you kn-kn-know how ma-ma-many people there are in N-N-New York?" I was so stunned by this combination of cockiness, stuttering and unexpected questioning that all I could do was reply. I said "Why, about 7 million, I suppose." "Then wha-wha-why in-in hell ask me?" I daresay that there are a dozen attorneys within the area of Metropolitan St. Louis itself far better qualified to speak upon this subject, attorneys who know international law and could give a closely documented case for either side of the question. So I thought, "Why ask me?"

Human frailty permitted me to appear; it cannot be expected that I would resist the opportunity to speak before a group of this size and nature. An insufficient justification for acceptance can be found in the twin facts that I can draw upon the experience of being a Prisoner of War Camp Judge Advocate for a year and that certain figures can be disclosed, the announcement of which would not have been allowed by the Provost Marshal General a short time ago.

The public has shown great interest (especially sinCe the atrocity stories have become matters of common knowledge) in the reasons for the War Department's Prisoner of War management. Let us examine.

Proper administration of Prisoners of War is measured by three purposes: The first is enticement, the second security and the third the use of the prisoners.

As for enticement, it must be said at the very outset that we cannot accurately measure the success of management in that field. Inducement to surrender is too abstract a value to be submitted for accurate measurement. There is a myriad of reasons why soldiers surrender in the field.

Consider the soldier as an individual. His introduction to society, his community life, his adaptation to his very home—all these factors are operative, these are initial stimuli—and then there are the final forces: His adjustment to the army, the condition of his equipment, the success of the instant battle, and, perhaps, even his attitude toward his Sergeant. No General Staff can so govern a group of the enemy so as to determine, through the scientific use of control factors, the full effect that the promise of happy camp life has upon the soldier in the field. But an inducement there is; examples of it have been seen.

Intelligence records show the Italian thousands, when they were taken, they were not taken from the shock of battle but taken with full equipment, folded tents, shined shoes and files in a state of readiness. They were willing to be subjected to the beef steaks and cigarettes to be found in our collection point.

Italian prisoners have written home to their cousins telling them of the wonders of our camps. I read one letter in which the writer said, "Now, Alicebides, when you are captured" did you catch that phrase? "when you are captured." It was not only anticipated, it was postulated.

An Italian Captain who was the adjutant of a camp to which I was assigned told me that when he surrendered he took the white flag and made his way across the lines to the regimental headquarters and was taken to a Major, who, incidentally, was from St. Louis, Missouri.

He told the Major that he had several companies ready to surrender. The Major looked about him and said to the Italian, "Let's see, it is about 4 o'clock, and we are still playing baseball. I am sorry, old man, first things first. I have got to umpire this game. I will give you an appointment at 9 o'clock in the morning." The next morning, on the hour, with boots shined and with proper courtesy, the Italian Captain returned and was given instructions on the disposition of his troops.

We cannot say how tempting the promise of pleasant camp life was to the enemy, but it is a fact, not rhetoric, that they came to us as a matter of routine, and they came to us in great numbers.

It is eminently more sensible, and really rather clever, to win our war with butter and beefsteaks instead of bullets and bombs.

Insofar as the security of Prisoners of War is a concern, success on every hand may be reported. Security is important For the prisoners to return to aid, once again, our enemy abroad, would be a discouraging turn of events—to reduce them to custody here and allow escape would be bad, too. They have been secure: On the 29th day of January of this year, we had of Germans alone, 300,000 Prisoners of War in continental United States, and only 17 were at large. That is a good job of security, and it becomes a better job when it is realized that these Prisoners of War were not kept within the immediate confines of a closely guarded camp, but were worked—more of that anon.

The task of guarding these prisoners becomes a lighter one if they are treated in a humane manner—more of that anon.

And here, perhaps, is the most tasty item of the report: In all the history of prisoner control upon our home soil, not a single act of sabotage has been effected.

I repeat, for those who would criticise, and let the aspersions fall where they may, "Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea—not a single act of sabotage has been effected."

Colonel H. H. Glidden of the Prisoner of War Camp atWeingarten, Missouri, is fond of saying that he could roll back the fencing at 10 o'clock in the morning, at 11 o'clock all the Prisoners of War would be gone, and at 12 o'clock they would be back—waiting for their noon meal. A great deal of our control effectiveness can be assigned to the fact that the prisoners are relatively happy in the camps.

A few minutes ago I said that the third purpose of administration was use of Prisoners of War. In the past several months, one of America's most critical needs has been that of manpower. Only the most fool-hardy of persons would refuse aid given him if he were being set upon by robbers in a dark alley, simply because the person assisting him was his enemy yesterday. The War Department, realizing that, made yesterday's foe today's ally.

We needed labor for the field and for the factory, and so the War Department contracted for, the Prisoner of War labor. During the last 6 months' period, throughout the United States, there has been an average of 153,000 Prisoners of War assigned to work for the army and for private contractors.

During the same six months' period, the prisoners performed over 23,000,000 man-days of work!

In Article 31 of the Geneva Convention, which was signed by the President of the United States on January 16th, 1932, and is the law to which we must strictly adhere in the government of prisoners, it is stated, Labor furnished by Prisoners of War shall have no direct relation, with war operations. It is especially prohibited to use prisoners for manufacturing and transporting arms or munitions of any kind, or for transporting material intended for combat units." We did not breach that law, but the prisoners worked the woodpulp of the North, the cotton of the South, the fruit of the East and the wheat of the West, and I ask you, What of those items are so far removed from the war effort that it was not a cognizable contribution the effect of which could be felt by division, regiment and down to the company? Indeed, in a society so tightly meshed as this of the twentieth century, and one in which we are giving such full and solid consideration to victory, there is no commodity in all the vast market place that is not associated with war.

Run the gamut of human activity with most captious eye and you will not find an act without effect on the main effort, effect on a concrete thing such as munitions, or again on a vague thing—but as essential—a vague thing called morale. The lesson to be educed from "All for the want of a nail" is of magnified import now that the horse cavalry is pretty well gone: a bottle of ink, a safety-pin, even a letter well written, all are weapons with which the enemy may be slain.

Thus, the woodpulp, the cotton, the fruit and the wheat, all, in a broad sense, are munitions.

Thus, despite the restriction that would not permit them to work on gun or plane these prisoners did directly aid our forces, moreover, they indirectly released many of our farm boys so that they could leave the tractor and actually ride the tank.

These labor contracts were, in fact, profitable from the point of view of cash as well as national defense. It cost us less than sixty cents a day to feed our prisoners, they were paid eighty cents a day for labor. The labor was contracted for at union price—this in order that there would be no competition between our prisoner labor and the free, union labor of America. The difference between that eighty cents and the union price was paid to the Treasurer of the United states, which Treasury is now the richer to the extent of 25,000,000 dollars!

It is not the purpose of this speech to contend that the War Department is right, nor do I essay to debate the merits of any plan. This is, by intent simply a recitation of the facts with the invitation that you judge the merits of action taken and results achieved. If you approve you may applaude.

In a little village of a foreign land lived two men of community fame. One was the parish priest, the other a mirror merchant who had learned the art of applying quicksilver to glass and had profited by the acquisition of worldly goods. Mirror making was the only art he had learned. The priest had learned a single art too—the art of living. That was all he need learn.

So it was that Father Pontrelli was known for his kindness and the merchant for his miserliness—all men had praise for "padre" but, as is often the case with sincere admiration they seldom spoke it for with simple men the heart finds it hard to use the tongue. Their silence was eloquent.

But the merchant was much discussed and continually condemned.

Evil days fell upon the merchant for he became sick in body, and then, as might have been expected, apprehensive in soul. He worried about his lack of friends. No man called upon him, even his oldest retainers manifested little personal concern.

One Sunday the miserable miser made his painful way to the hilltop where dwelt the priest. As soon as his breath would allow him he complained to Pontrelli, "Why am i so alone?" The priest smiled, and with one arm over the shoulder of his guest he led him to a window.

"What do you see?" he asked.

The miser peering out said he saw a greensward, children playing, the brook in the valley—and so moved was he by the beauty of the scene and the friendliness of the priest (for the worst of us respond to kind treatment) he added that in his "fancy" he even heard the singing of the birds I

The priest then guided the old man to a mirror on the wall, again he asked, "What do you see?"

The merchant looked upon his own reflection—it was a picture of greed, selfish thoughts, and poor living stamped upon dying skin. The miser too used to his likeness for objective study replied, "Why the only thing I see is myself."

"You see," said the wiser old man of God, "what a great difference a little silver can make?"

A little silver can make a great difference. With a little silver we changed the view of the prisoners, they repaired our roads, they harvested and stored our crops, they maintained our military posts because their views were shrunk to seeing only themselves. No alchemist could have dreamed a more cunning charm—the silver tinkled, and the Nazi sniper became the American farmer I

There was an alternative, it was to treat these men with contempt and vilification, to cast aside the instructions of the law which were, after all imposed by force of our own conscience and good taste for the most part. That alternative would have given us the satisfaction of vengeance. Vengeance has never been a paramount, or even an important feature of American society. Had we stooped to vengeance the fullest satisfaction would have been about as long lived as the "YoYo" fad, and I daresay about as worth while.

Many lessons have been distilled from critical reading of history, buffeted about on the sea of experience and then rejected. But one lesson, at least, has risen from emotion, sparkled forth an idea, and been long retained. "Men cannot be ruled by fear alone," and that lesson translated into action has caused the erstwhile enemy to work with diligence and in many cases with a great deal of skill for our military vic

tory. I have hammered at this thought to the point of laboring the obvious, but it is important.

The House Military Affairs Committee investigated and could not find a single case of coddling of these many inmates of our camps. They go to work, and when their work is done, they return; but they are human beings, and if treated as such, the benefits are many.

When I first billeted Prisoners of War at Weingarten, and I had made my little speech of instructions, all of which was translated, I asked if there were any questions which these officers would like to have answered. "What," I asked, "was upper-most in their minds?" The question had no more than been asked when an Italian Lieutenant stepped out of the group and sweeping aside the translator, he asked with unfeigned sincerity, "Lt., can you tell us how the Dodgers did at the double-header yesterday?" This incident has a definite value to an administrator. It illustrates that the prisoners are persons of common tastes and of interests sometimes very close to our American ways of thought. If they are handled as individuals, subject to the failings, and sensitive to the stimulus of other humans, they can be made items of value and not a liability during even the most perilous of hours.

So we entice, secure, and use them. We religiously adhered to the rules of the Geneva Convention, and the War Department has abundant proof had we not done so, retaliation would have been very quick and greatly magnified.

Those bodies lying in Erla, Belsen and Buchenwald Concentration Camps were never clothed in American uniforms, I do not mean to imply that the depravities of the Nazis are less because those bodies are not the bodies of Americans, but what I wish to demonstrate to you is this: The Germans even in the greatest moments of despair obeyed the Convention in most respects. True it is that there were front line atrocities—passions run high up there—but they were incidents, not practices; and maladministration of their American prison camps was very uncommon. We held the whip hand, we had thousands of their nationals, we could retaliate. Had we not preserved these men, our soldiers would have been targets for Nazi brutality.

The prison camp administrative techniques initiated at the outset of the war have been employed throughout its long duration with benefits daily accruing, the technique has brought us a harvest which we should not forget. It has brought us a harvest in actual foodstuffs, a harvest in the lesson that the law properly respected, even during trying times, will give its own rewards, and a harvest in that we have made many prisoners individual "good-will ambassadors" so that when they return to their native soil they will have to admit to themselves and probably tell to others that the American way of doing things is much to be preferred.

The law is a scientific thing, an esoteric thing, as perhaps too many of you know. I do not desire to undertake the Gargantuan task of making you attorneys here within an hour. But certain broad aspects of the law, the layman can understand in the very announcement of the rules.

Law can be difficult, as I say, and this can be exemplified by a remark that Justice Cardoza made to the Acting Dean of Harvard Law School. He said there were 14 lines of a New York Statute which, by 1920, had been before the highest court of that State 325 times, a 375 page book had been written on it, and still parts of its meaning were not known! The Statute referred to the competency of a witness to testify.

However, the law in its broader aspects can be simple. The Geneva Convention declares that "The food ration of Prisoners of War shall be equal in quality and quantity to that of troops at base camps."—I quote from Article 11, That food standard is the accepted norm because of administrative reasons, among others. The representative of the Swiss Legation can enter a camp, inspect the food and then go to near-by or distant base camps, unheralded, and thus quickly make a definite determination as to whether or not the menus are legal. If the food standard were that of the civilian population in the detaining country, how could the international representatives make their determination? In America they would find a standard on Park Avenue and one slightly different on Beale Street. In Germany, the representatives could be shown many standards of living too, and so the comparative treatment of our soldiers incarcerated there could not be established as being either good or bad. The standard used was definitive. It is a case of proper administration to use the troop rations as a guide.

Now that law need not be appealed to a Supreme Court for understanding.

Having addressed your attention to the reasons why the standard is imposed here in these United States, I will leave you with the question as to whether or not the army is being unmindful of its duty to either our civilian population or our men with rifles in their hands when it feeds PW's the equivalent of troop mess.

The Italian Service Units deserve a word because they have performed so well, and because an explanation of their status may disabuse minds of erroneous conclusions. These units were organized after Italy became a co-belligerent, and all members of these units have signed agreements voluntarily waiving the provision that as PW's they cannot work on combat items. Today these units are repairing tactical vehicles, loading shells, crating bombs, they are doing everything possible to speed supplies to the front. Thousands of these units are employed in similar work overseas. In return for this work they receive compensation in cash, for their pockets, far below the union scale, and compensation in entertainment, for their ease of mind, far less than that which would be afforded them were they repatriated to native soil

It must be stressed that these Service Units are unlike what we might term the "straight" Prisoner of War. The straight prisoner is not permitted entertainment like the Service Unit is afforded. When not working, the straight prisoner is behind barbed wire.

We have succeeded in attaining our immediate goal—we have enticed, secured and used—this and more. We have sown some seed of friendship today that might well give us a crop of cooperation tomorrow.

Finally, our adherence to the international law during the days and nights when it was, in many of its aspects, so completely defiled and openly mocked by the enemy has shown the world an example which in itself is a challenge to the supreme political and social menace that is facing that world It has demonstrated a faith in good-will that will assist in turning the stream of history from ancient channels of fear and hate* into a new course of peace and unity. Ours is a world that is broken and disillusioned, a world that is weary, in many places weary to the point of blindness, but it is a world no longer listening to the voice of tyrants who would ruin both religion and democracy. It is a world refreshed, and so eager for peaceful, generous and secure life that obedience to international law has never had the deep and universal sanction it has today.

Our steadfastness in dark hours made the light of example the brighter.

We have shown the way.