American Prisoners at Buchenwald

Buchenwald was a Class II concentration camp for political prisoners, mainly Communists, but it was also one of the main camps where French Resistance fighters, who were fighting as partisans in World War II, were imprisoned. Germany had signed the Geneva Convention of 1929, but partisans or insurgents were not entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention because they were fighting illegally in violation of the Convention. Soldiers who had been captured on the battlefield, or pilots who were shot down during a bombing raid, were classified as POWs and since they had protection under the Geneva Convention, they were not usually sent to a concentration camp, such as Buchenwald.

Until recently, few people knew that a group of Allied pilots, shot down over German-occupied France, were detained as prisoners in the Buchenwald concentration camp until they were rescued by a Luftwaffe General and taken by train to Stalag III, which was a POW camp. The Luftwaffe was the German Air Force.

Edwin Ritter was one of the American pilots who was held at Buchenwald for two months, before he was saved by the Luftwaffe, according to his daughter Christine Bannerman who e-mailed us his story. According to Ms. Bannerman, her father, Edwin Ritter, was from Chicago; he was trained at West Dover, MA and was with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). Ritter belonged to a group of Allied pilots that supplied the French Underground; they were known as the "carpetbaggers."

The downed American pilots, who were aiding the French Resistance, were initially sent to Buchenwald because of their connection to the insurgents who were fighting in violation of the Geneva Convention; France had signed an Armistice with Germany and had promised to stop fighting.

A similar story was told in a film shown on the History Channel called "Dropped From The Sky" about an American pilot who was found with the French Underground after being shot down over France. In the film, the name of the pilot was Roy Allen and he was from Philadelphia. Allen was also sent to Buchenwald and was then transferred to a Prisoner of War camp. According to Christine Bannerman, there were some 80 to 160 pilots in the same program as her father.

Some of the other men who were with Edwin Ritter as prisoners in Buchenwald were Bob Johnson, Fred Martini, and Andre Fleury. Ritter and Fred Martini had micro film implanted in their feet while at Buchenwald by a Belgian and Jewish Doctor at the camp, according to what he told his daughter in a taped interview. They were to take the film back to the United States. Ritter told his daughter that the micro film was taken out at a hospital in Boston upon their return.

According to a 2009 newspaper article by Mike Siegel of The Seattle Times, 1st Lt. Joe Moser was a 22-year-old pilot from Ferndale, WA who was shot down over France on August 13, 1944 while he was flying his 44th mission in a Lockheed P-38 Lightning aircraft.

The following quote is from Mike Siegel's article:

French farmers tried to hide Moser, but German soldiers who saw the crash soon caught up with him and demanded to know the whereabouts of his co-pilot, not realizing the P-38 was a one-man plane.

Moser was first taken to a French prison, but a week after his capture he and nearly 170 other captured Allied fliers were crammed into railroad boxcars for an five-day ride to Germany.

At Buchenwald, they were marched past rows of snarling dogs and armed guards, then were stripped, shaved from head to toe, swabbed with a stinging disinfectant and forced to sleep outside in a rocky field, with three men sharing a single blanket.

At the time, most the world hadn't yet learned of the atrocities Nazis were committing on a mass scale against Jews, political enemies and foreign prisoners, so Moser didn't initially know what to make of the camp's tall black smokestack and its noxious black plume.

But when a guard who spoke English "told us the only way we'd leave was as smoke up that chimney," the reality of the horror in front of Moser began to take shape.

In the weeks to come, he and his fellow prisoners would see corpses piled up outside the crematory. "People were dying faster than they could dispose of the bodies."

A typical day's "rations" consisted of a small dish of watery cabbage soup with cabbage worms still wriggling on top, and a hunk of bread laced with sawdust. Toilets were unsanitary trenches; dysentery was rampant.

Unlike "death camps" such as Auschwitz, developed for mass executions, Buchenwald was a sprawling compound of munitions factories, fields and barracks - built as a forced-labor camp for political prisoners.

But as the Nazi cause became increasingly desperate, conditions at Buchenwald grew more brutal. It's estimated that at one point, as many as 500 Russian prisoners a day were shot to death, and that over the course of the war, 56,000 of the camp's 250,000 inmates were either executed, starved, worked to death or died from illness.

Fortunately for Moser, conditions in the SS-run camp apparently shocked even some members of Germany's power elite, including high-ranking members of the Luftwaffe, Germany's air force.

Luftwaffe officers had heard that Allied aviators were at the camp, and arranged a visit with the top officers among the prisoner group, a colonel from New Zealand and an American captain.

"The disgust they felt for their fellow German SS officers was clear," Moser said. "It was also certain that they did not approve of the way we were being treated."

An unusual sense of fraternity was at work: Although Allied and German pilots wouldn't hesitate to blast each other out of the sky in battle, they felt a kinship that predated World War II.

A week after the Luftwaffe visit, the Allied pilots at Buchenwald, which included about 60 Americans, were told to gather up their belongings. They were marched to a warehouse and handed back the clothes they had arrived in.

"There were smiles on our skeletal faces," said Moser. The fliers correctly surmised that they wouldn't be getting their belongings back if they were on their way to be cremated.

Moser, who weighed 155 pounds when he was shot down, had dropped nearly 40 pounds in his two months at Buchenwald.

Years later, after Allied forces examined camp records, Moser would learn Buchenwald's SS officers planned to execute the Allied fliers, and likely would have done so within days if the Luftwaffe hadn't intervened.

Even after he was transferred to a regular prisoner-of-war camp, life was not easy for Moser. As the Germans held less and less territory, he was twice relocated on wintertime "death marches," one of 60 miles and one of more than 100. But at the three POW camps where he was held, life seldom approached the hopelessness that pervaded Buchenwald.


Weeks later, after a lengthy ocean crossing, Moser was back on American soil. But he ran into skepticism regarding his story about Buchenwald, partly because there were no official records that Americans had been held there. Rather than defend his account, he opted to keep it to himself.

Moser has co-written a book with Gerald Baron, entitled "A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald" about his war-time experiences.



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This page was updated on June 27, 2009