In early 1942, following a string of successes, the Japanese seized nearly 10,000 American soldiers, among them Pvt. Oscar Smith, on Manila Bay and marched them to a near-certain death through Bataan. A few days later they put Smith to work burying the stacked bodies of his own men.
Robert Salmon had already served his time in the military during World War I, fighting for his native England. He was teaching biochemistry to Chinese students in Shanghai when the Japanese arrested him in 1943 and condemned him, with thousands of confused Western missionaries, to spend the remainder of World War II in an abandoned tobacco factory.
German soldiers, marching toward what would be known as the Battle of the Bulge, captured Ed Uzemack, a Chicago journalist turned soldier, at an abandoned Luxembourg inn. By cattle car they sent him to a crowded, wind-swept POW camp, once the final internment spot for Jewish concentration camp victims.
In 1945 Hermann Pfengle, just fifteen years old, had been released from German military duty and was retreating through Czech farm country when American soldiers seized him and his friends. The Americans—who he had hoped would treat him more humanely than the feared Russians or German SS would—sent him to a camp close to his home, where he languished with thousands of German prisoners behind a wire fence, watching many of them die from hunger, exposure, and dehydration.
Helga Wunsch thought she had survived the war when Germany surrendered to the Allies, but she was soon forced to face the new horrors of Soviet occupation in her eastern German town. When she was arrested by the Russians on bogus espionage charges, she was merely a teenage schoolgirl planning for her graduation exams. As a political prisoner, she would spend her next ten years under constant threat of torture, beatings, and starvation.
These survivors offer uniquely personal stories in this fascinating narrative of imprisonment during and immediately after World War II. Their gripping accounts weave determination and despair, grief and human, horror and hardship together in a universal tapestry of prison life, revealing details never before told about World War II POWs and the often unspeakable hardships they sustained.
Their stories take the reader on an unforgettable journey through history and across the world, from the heinous crimes against prisoners in the Philippines to the little-known and undocumented life within political prisoners in the former East Germany.
Claire Swedberg, author of Work Commando 311/I, is a journalist with experience in reporting for both newspapers and television. She is currently a newspaper editor in New Jersey.