By Bruce I. Sanders
A Prisoner of War (POW) or Enemy Prisoner of War (EPW) is a person, whether combatant or non-combatant, who is held in custody by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict. The earliest recorded usage of the phrase is dated 1660.
For most of human history, depending on the culture of the victors, combatants on the losing side in a battle could expect to be either slaughtered or enslaved. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which ended the Thirty Years’ War established the precedent that prisoners of war should be released at the end of hostilities and allowed to return to their homelands.
There was also the interesting concept of “parole” from the French for "discourse," whereby an officer could surrender and give his word as a “gentleman” not to escape in exchange for certain privileges.
The earliest specifically designed POW camp was at Norman Cross, England, built in 1797 to house prisoners from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.
The Hague and Geneva Conventions covered the treatment of prisoners of war in detail. Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention which protects captured military personnel, some guerrilla fighters and certain civilians, makes it illegal to torture prisoners and states that a prisoner can only be required to give their name, date of birth, rank and service number.
When World War II ended, Nazi Germany held nearly 95,000 U.S. military personnel; Japan held almost 15,000 Americans. 2nd Lt. Robert L. Pioli, U.S. Army Air Corps, father of Buffalo District Safety Specialist William Pioli, was one of those 95,000.
In 1940, Robert Pioli attempted to enlist in the Marine Corps, but his mother adamantly refused to give her permission. She had lived through World War I in Italy and had seen a brother die in a POW camp in Austria. Enlistment and volunteering were out for her son.
The game changer came for Pioli, as it did for many Americans, on that “date that will live in infamy,” December 7, 1941. Pioli was a high school graduate working in a chemical plant for an hourly wage. He lived in a self-described ethnic ghetto of first generation Americans who saw the path of life as getting a job, marrying, having a family and settling in the old neighborhood. While Pioli was unsure about what direction to go in, he knew he wanted more out of life.
Pioli carefully researched and considered all branches of the service. Since the prime criterion was “glamour,” the choice was easy: an Aviation Cadet in the Army Air Corps. And so, on October 23, 1942, in Buffalo, New York, Robert Pioli was inducted.
Unlike many Bombardier Candidates, Pioli was not a pilot wash-out. Pioli was a young man in a clean, crisp uniform journeying around the country for training and staying in some of the best hotels. He had the world by the tail. Training completed, 2nd Lt. Robert Pioli, Bombardier, was assigned to the 483rd Bomb Group, 815th Squadron.
In March 1944, Pioli finally received his flight orders and flew to the European Theatre of Operations via the southern route, stopping in places like Puerto Rico, British Guinea, Brazil, Dakar and Algiers. “It was truly a poor man’s vacation and I marveled at all those strange sights…the world was my oyster.” On to the 2nd Bomb Group, 96th Squadron. The glamour and thrill of combat dissipated on Pioli’s first day when he saw B-17s returning from a mission. He learned about the custom of counting parachutes and learned how cliché the Hollywood movies were. It was at that point that Pioli resigned himself to the likelihood that he would not survive the war.
During one raid over Yugoslavia, Pioli glanced over at his wingman to see if they had dropped their bombs. They were not there. Vanished. Later, he heard that they had dropped out of formation and exploded. Gone--just like that. Pioli felt remorse for the crew, but not the kind of remorse he had expected. “Ten men just disappeared, and I treating it like another day at the office. There just was nothing I could do, and simply accepted it as an occupational hazard.”
Then came Ploesti. Not the first ill-fated low level raid, but a follow-up high altitude strike. The sky was filled with ME-109s. The B-17 gunners were desperate to fend them off but to no avail. “My father has had a lot of good luck in his life,” said son Bill Pioli, “unfortunately in 1944 his luck was not so good.” The B-17 began to fill with smoke. It was then that Bombardier Piloi heard the pilot speak those dreaded words: “We’re going down. Everybody get the hell out!”
Pioli hit the ground hard and broke his ankle. After being rescued from a group of angry Hungarian farmers by German soldiers, he was taken off for interrogation to a series of small, dark rooms, sometimes with a Luger pointed at his head. “I was covered with vomit, unshaved, dirty and with an ankle that throbbed like your worst toothache,” Pioli said.
Herded into boxcars like cattle, the captured airmen were taken to Stalag Luft III inside Germany. He would end the war at Stalag Luft VIIA. While interned, Pioli would experience the gamut of physical and emotional torture: fear; desperate hunger; bitter cold; chronic boredom and bouts of deep despair and depression. But he survived. Many did not. On April 29, 1945, U.S. forces liberated him from that POW camp, a moment Pioli says is the most memorable of his life.
Fast forward to April 29, 2013, the 68th anniversary of 2nd Lt. Pioli’s liberation. Family, neighbors and friends gathered around to join in celebration at his Devola, Ohio, home. There was a surprise guest: Cong. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta. He presented Pioli with a U.S. flag that had flown over the nation's capitol in Pioli's honor. "How many times does a congressman come to your house and give you a flag?" Pioli said after receiving the banner.
Considering the sacrifices of those in “The Greatest Generation,” it can never be too often.