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Long Hard Road

American POWs During World War II

Thomas Saylor

Publication Year: 2007

Between 1941 and 1945 more than 110,000 American marines, soldiers, airmen, and sailors were taken prisoner by German, Italian, and Japanese forces. Most who fought overseas during World War II weren’t prepared for capture, or for the life-altering experiences of incarceration, torture, and camaraderie bred of hardship that followed. Their harrowing story—often overlooked in Greatest Generation narratives—is told here by the POWs themselves. Long hours of inactivity followed by moments of sheer terror. Slave labor, death marches, the infamous hell ships. Historian Thomas Saylor pieces together the stories of nearly one hundred World War II POWs to explore what it was like to be the “guest” of the Axis Powers and to reveal how these men managed to survive. Gunner Bob Michelsen bailed out of his wounded B-29 near Tokyo, only to endure days of interrogation and beatings and months as a “special prisoner” in a tiny cell home to seventeen other Americans. Medic Richard Ritchie spent long moments of terror locked with dozens of others in an unmarked boxcar that was repeatedly strafed by Allied forces. In the closing chapter to this moving narrative, the men speak of their difficult transition to life back home, where many sought—not always successfully—to put their experience behind them.

Published by: Minnesota Historical Society Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-xiv

Captives have been taken for as long as organized warfare has existed.Yet laws guaranteeing decent handling of fighting men who laid downtheir weapons is a relatively recent idea, little more than a century old. Intimes past, prisoners sometimes were ransomed; at other times they...

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pp. xv-xvi

Numerous organizations and individuals provided assistance as the POW Oral History Project grew and developed, and I take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks. The project received major financialassistance from the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation and theMinnesota Historical Society. Additional financial support came from...


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pp. xvii-xxii

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“It’s Never Going to Happen to Me”

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pp. 3-4

PRIOR TO THE EARLY 1942 DEBACLES in the Philippines and other Pacific locations—and even after—American government and military leaders did little to prepare service personnel for the possibility that they could end up prisoners of war. Some policy makers believed that even suggesting to soldiers what they might expect in the event of capture could weaken their resolve to continue fighting and make surrenderan acceptable option. Not until 1944 did the U.S. War Department...

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1: Captured!

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pp. 5-38

NEARLY 115,000 American service personnel were taken prisoner during World War II. There were career soldiers and conscripts, men from all service branches. The first were taken captive in December 1941, just weeks after the United States entered the war; the last were captured in August 1945, days before the Japanese capitulation...

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2: Prison Camps

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pp. 39-76

THE CAPTURE MOMENT, as we have seen, brought with it a combination of anxiety, guilt, fear, and physical brutality. A permanent camp location offered a semblance of safety and security, especially in Germany. For many prisoners, between these two stages was a third: interrogation. This process took many forms. For ground troops in Europe, the Germans often conducted any questioning...

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3: Guards and Escape

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pp. 77-103

PRISONERS CAME INTO frequent, daily contact with guards who patrolled the camps and inspected the individual barracks. For the POWs, once behind barbed wire in a permanent camp, this was the face of the enemy. Depending on location, experiences were drastically different. From the German camps come accounts of guards, many in their forties...

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4: Relations Between Men

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pp. 104-129

THROUGHOUT the Stalags and Luft Stalags, prisoners formed themselves into groups for both companionship and support. Generally comprising two to six men, these groups shared extra food, looked after each other during illness, and helped pass the endless days. Organization was sometimes by branch of service or home state, other times...

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5: The “Other”

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pp. 130-149

SOME PRISONERS of the Germans faced additional stress and uncertainty because of who they were. Even though “a significant portion . . . were treated like any other POWs,” American Jewish prisoners could never be certain they wouldn’t be singled out and mistreated. Rumors circulated of Nazi atrocities against Jews in eastern Europe; thus...

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6: Forced Marches Across Germany

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pp. 149-175

BEGINNING IN MID-1944, the Allies steadily drove German forces back to the country’s prewar borders. In the west, U.S.–led forces pushed eastward from France; on the Eastern Front, the Soviet Red Army swept all before it. Especially in the east, numerous POW camps suddenly came within range of the fighting. As a result, during the last...

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7: Hellships and Slave Labor

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pp. 176-201

SEA TRANSPORT DETAILS are perhaps the least-known aspect of the Pacific POW experience, even though more than 126,000 POWs were transported and more than 21,000 died en route. By the prisoners, and in the literature on the subject, these transports are most often referred to by a singular name: hellships.1 From the war’s beginning, the Japanese had moved prisoners from...

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8: Liberation

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pp. 202-232

WAR’S END IN EUROPE: in separate ceremonies on May 7 and 9, 1945, Germany’s leaders placed their signatures on the surrender document. For most POWs, though, the end had come days or even weeks before the actual surrender, as advancing Allied units liberated camps and forced-march columns...

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9: Long Hard Road

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pp. 233-259

MEMORIES OF reunions with family proved to be a poignant subject. Many a former POW became very emotional when reliving that moment when he once again felt the touch of an anxious parent, wife, or other loved one. Numerous reunions came after years of separation. Many men had...

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pp. 260-268

Forgiveness: With difficult, at times horrible experiences finally behind them, the former prisoners faced many challenges as they attempted to put their lives back together. One of the more complex challenges was to deal with their feelings toward those who had been their captors—individual guards or prison camp...

Prisoners of War Interviewed for This Book

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pp. 269-277


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pp. 278-284


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pp. 285-288


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pp. 289-297

E-ISBN-13: 9780873516815
E-ISBN-10: 0873516818
Print-ISBN-13: 9780873515979
Print-ISBN-10: 0873515978

Page Count: 324
Illustrations: 50 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2007

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 794700995
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Long Hard Road

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Oral history ‡x Study and teaching.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Prisoners and prisons, Italian.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Prisoners and prisons, Japanese.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Prisoners and prisons, German.
  • Prisoners of war -- United States -- Biography.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Personal narratives, American.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Concentration camps -- Pacific Area.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Concentration camps -- Europe.
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