Lost in the histories of World War II is an extraordinary tale: that of Allied airmen, shot down over Europe, who were captured and imprisoned in the Nazi labor camp, Buchenwald.
While most captured airmen -- pilots, navigators, radiomen -- were held in prisoner-of-war (POW) camps and treated according to the Geneva Conventions, some were falsely accused of being "terrorists and saboteurs" and subjected to the far worse conditions -- starvation, torture, isolation -- of the notorious concentration camps. Whether for reasons of state secrecy or because it was the conventionally "known fact" that Allied combatants were never sent to the concentration camps, this tale has remained untold over the decades.
But now, at long last, history has been corrected with a moving documentary, Lost Airmen of Buchenwald, masterfully directed by Mike Dorsey.
Featuring seven of the surviving Buchenwald airmen, the documentary weaves together the testimony of these singular men hailing from the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand. Without the bravado of present-day adventuring, these veterans tell their tale in plainspoken manner, some having revealed their story to family only many years after their life-and-death ordeal.
Indeed, this film's particular strength is the testimony -- how each veteran's contribution tracks and aligns with another's testimony, how vivid is their recall of detail and degree. In this way, in best documentary fashion, the director reinforces a tale that might still be disbelieved.
Most of the airmen featured, having crashed in France, made their way to occupied Paris, where they were betrayed by a particularly busy Nazi agent. Their journey to Hell began in a box-car, crowded to twice the normal density, in a five-day ride to Buchenwald. Once in the camp, grasping the deadly implications, they understood their best means of surviving, and escape, was to maintain military discipline. Being senior in rank, the New Zealander assumed command and set a defiant tone toward their captors -- for example, refusing the order that his men work in the nearby munitions factory: How could they make bullets to kill Allied comrades? Their worst moments came when that factory was later bombarded by their own side.
Such details of character are studded throughout the film. The viewer soon connects to each of the diverse cast and can identify a veteran's voice even before his face is shown. Adding to the film's value are the archival footage -- scenes of occupied Paris, of French citizens who risked their lives to help the airmen, of Buchenwald itself, and of the P.O.W. camp where finally, just as the war was ending, the airmen were marched.
This last-minute maneuver may explain why this tale went untold: One veteran surmises that, as the war closed, the U.S. Government was in negotiations with Germany's rocket scientists to emigrate to the U.S.; that Allied combatants were treated to anything less than Geneva standards could have been a sticking point. Still, when General Dwight D. Eisenhower, head of all Allied forces, made his official visit to Buchenwald, he invited along a large contingent of the surrounding villagers -- who entered the camp laughing and left somber or crying, even fainting, at the skeletal inmates. Why was there no media follow-up of the full story? Clearly, Eisenhower invited full scrutiny.
Fittingly, the film ends on a philosophical tone, with the veterans expressing their views of human nature, the German enemy, life. As one of them says, if he's never again as cold as he was in Buchenwald, or as hungry, or as scared, "Then it's a good day." Perhaps the true take-away from this film is that, despite official silence and media inattention, these veterans' moral character and love of country shine through.
Amid much evidence of America's decline, watch this film and be stirred. The "lost airmen" point the way.
With so much entertainment competition, Lost Airmen of Buchenwald is in limited distribution. This tale deserves a showing on PBS -- petition your local station. Petition your local theatre. A DVD is available. Also available is a book by one of the veterans, Joseph F. Moser, as told to Gerald R. Baron, A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald.
Carla Seaquist is author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she authored "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and is working on a play titled "Prodigal" (www.carlaseaquist.com).