Thousands of men found themselves as unfortunate prisoners of war during a time when kindness toward the enemy was rare. The conditions they faced were brutal and many never made it out of the camps alive. Many of those who managed to escape or survive have shared their amazing stories of how they made it through. Here are the stories of 8 men with some of the most remarkable and heartbreaking POW stories ever told.
Andras Toma was the longest held POW of World War II. Andras Tomas was 19 when he was captured by the Soviet Union in the fall of 1944. He was placed in a POW camp east of Leningrad. When the war ended and plans were made to shut down the camp in 1947, Andras Toma was sent to a mental hospital when the prison camp closed. Many believed him to be insane because he only spoke gibberish that no one could understand.
As it turned out, the gibberish that Andras Toma was speaking was not gibberish at all, but Hungarian. The doctors at the mental hospital had never heard the language before, and therefore had no idea the man they kept in their hospital was perfectly sane. They had no idea for more than 50 years.
Finally, someone realized what language he was speaking and the Hungarian government undertook a search to find the man and his family. He was 75 when he was reunited with his family. Two of this siblings were just 7 and 1 when their brother was captured, but they recognized him as looking nearly identical to their father.
Andras Toma was eager to have people to talk to again, though his old Hungarian tongue intermixed with Russian was hard to understand. He remembered many of the sights of his own hometown but he struggled to relay memories in any sort of chronological order. Toma died in Hungary in 2004.
When Bill Ash became old enough, he gave up his United States citizenship and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force on June 20, 1940. The following year he was sent to England and joined the No. 411 Squadron RCAF. He was a successful pilot for more than a year before he was shot down over France in March of 1942. He tried to make it to back to England but he was captured in Paris and sent to Oflag XXI-B Szubin, a POW camp in Poland. From the moment he set foot in the prison camp, he was willing to do anything to escape. His first attempt was through a shower drain. His second attempt was with 32 other prisoners through a latrine tunnel.
The second attempt was successful, but Ash was recaptured after just 4 days of freedom. After that brazen escape he was transferred Stalag Luft III in Germany, where he quickly went to work on yet another escape plan. After 21 months, he managed he switch identities with another prisoner in order to get transferred to Stalag Luft VI in Lithuania.
Here he worked with prisoners to dig a huge tunnel in preparation for an escape much like the one at Oflag XXI-B Szubin. Unfortunately, the tunnel was discovered after only ten men had made it through. Ash was one of the men that was able to get to freedom. He managed to get away and get onboard a goods train that was headed to Kovno, Lithuania. Sadly, the station guards discovered him and he was immediately returned to Stalag Luft VI.
Throughout his three years as a POW, Ash made thirteen separate escape attempts, and six of those times managed to get beyond the walls of the prison camp. He was being held at Stalag Luft III at the time of the “Great Escape,” but he was not one of the prisoners involved because he was being held in the “cooler” as punishment for a previous escape attempt. He finally escaped for good in 1945 and made it to the British front lines.
Alistair Urquhart was conscripted into the British Army in 1939 and was one of the Gordon Highlanders stationed at Fort Canning, Singapore. He was there when the Japanese invaded the island. Urquhart was taken prisoner and forced to work on a 420-kilometer-long section of the Burma-Siam Railway. Surviving for years on nothing more than a cup of water and rice a day, he worked long, brutal hours in the sun and continuously suffered from numerous tropical illnesses. The overseers were particularly cruel and at one point Urquhart was tied up for two days in the blistering heat of day and cold of night. They splashed cold water on him anytime he lost consciousness.
When his two days were up he was locked in a tiny, half-submerged cage for days on end. It took contracting and surviving cholera to finally get away from the hellish slave camp. Even though he survived the cholera, he was left with dysentery, malaria, beriberi, and he could not use his legs. His captors sent him to a hospital where he was kept for six months due to the grace of a doctor who took pity on him.
But his captivity was not over, and in September 1944 he was loaded onto a Japanese “hell ship” where 900 British POWs were forced to stand in the dark, hot cargo hold. The ships were called “hell ships” not only for the heat, but because men were known to go mad and resort to cannibalism. After six days, the ship was hit by a torpedo and sunk. Urquhart managed to get to a raft and floated on the open sea for 5 days before he was picked up by a Japanese whaling ship. He was loaded onto another “hell ship” and this one did reach Japan.
Instead of working on a railroad, Urquhart was now used as slave laborer in a coal mine. He was so weak and ill that he could barely stand, making him useless in the mines, so he was moved to the camp hospital just 15 kilometers from Nagasaki. He was there when the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945, and he recalled being thrown sideways by the blast. Despite his weakened condition, he survived until the end of the war when the British finally liberated him and the other POWs held by the Japanese. His years of starvation and torture affected him for the rest of his life, but he lived to be 97 years old.
Douglas Bader joined the RAF in 1928 and became a very skilled pilot. He flew for several years with the RAF until 1931 when he crashed while trying to perform a stunt. His wounds were so severe that doctors had no choice but to amputate both of his legs. Despite the crash and his injury, Bader refused to be kept down. He was fitted with prosthetics and he focused on flying again. After months of therapy, he went back to the RAF where he passed his medical clearance and proved that even with his prosthetic legs he could still fly.
He joined the war effort and flew several successful missions. His time in the sky was short-lived, however, as he was shot down in August 1942 and captured by the Germans. He was taken to a hospital at a Luftwaffe camp in France. The Germans were fascinated by Bader and were very impressed that he was able to be a pilot without any legs. Their fascination meant that Bader was given plenty of special treatment by his captors.
In one instance the Germans were willing to provide safe passage for a British plane to air drop a new prosthetic leg to replace one of Bader’s that had been damaged in his crash. The plane dropped the leg over the prisoner camp and then used their safe passage to complete a bombing run. Bader did attempt to escape from the hospital by climbing through a window and then hiding out at a nearby home. But his escape was short lived and he was returned to the camp.
Despite the good treatment by the Germans, Douglas Bader was always looking for way to escape. He made so many attempts that the German officers would threaten to take his legs away. Bader spent years as a POW and used them to sabotage the Germans every chance he could. He irritated his captors by attempting to escape constantly. Eventually he overstayed his welcome and was sent to the “escape proof” Colditz Castle in Germany where he remained until the end of the war. Bader returned to England after the war and died in London in 1982.
German pilot Erich Hartmann scored numerous aerial victories and was considered to be one of the best flying aces of the war. He was just 18 when he started his military training in October 1940. He was assigned to Jagdgeschwader 52 in 1942 and fought on the Eastern front. When his unit was surrounded by American and Soviet forces at the end of the war, he commanded his unit to surrender.
They were sent to an open-air compound to await transfer to the Soviet Union. The conditions at the camp gradually deteriorated as the number of prisoners grew to surpass 50,000. It was so bad that American guards would turn a blind eye to prisoner escapes. In some cases, the Americans would even provide maps or supplies to escaping prisoners.
After the open air camp, he was transferred to a POW prison where the Soviets realized that Hartmann could be of use to them. His success as a pilot had made him something of a hero in Germany and the Soviets wanted him to as a spy and to spread propaganda in East Germany. Hartmann refused. As punishment, he was placed in 10 days confinement in a 4-by-9-by-6-foot chamber. The Soviets realized that there was little they could do to Hartmann to cause him to betray his men, so they threatened to kidnap and kill his wife. He still refused to convert to communism, and he went on a hunger strike. After four days, the Soviets began force-feeding him.
On December 24, 1949, he was officially arrested and three days later sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was charged with a number of false war crimes as the Soviets continued to try and break him. He refused to confess to any crimes, and his sentence was increased to 25 years hard labor. He refused to work and was placed in solitary confinement. The other prisoners revolted at Hartmann’s treatment and he was transferred to another camp where he spent 5 years in solitary confinement. In 1955, after more than 10 years in Soviet prison camps, a trade agreement between West Germany and the Soviet Union was reached which secured the release of 16,000 German military personnel including Erich Hartmann. He died in 1993 at the age of 71.
Henri Giraud joined the French Army in 1900 at the age of 21. He was sent to command troops in North Africa until he was ordered back to France after the outbreak of World War I. On August 30, 1914, he was seriously wounded in the Battle of St. Quentin. Left for dead, he was found by the Germans who placed him in a prison camp in Belgium. He remained at the camp for only two months until he managed to escape by pretending to be a worker with a traveling circus. He made his way back to France by traveling through the Netherlands.
He stayed with the military through the interwar period and was a member of the Superior War Council when World War II began. He became the commander of the 7th Army which was later merged with the 9th Army. He was on the front lines with a reconnaissance patrol when he was captured by the Germans on May 19, 1940. Giraud was taken to Konigstein Castle in Germany and he remained there for over two years.
He devoted his time at the infamous castle to devising the perfect escape plan. The first part of his plan involved learning German and memorizing a map of the area. Then he made friends with some of the guards who eventually agreed to smuggle him bits of twine and copper wire. He twisted the copper wire and twine with torn bedsheets in order to make 150 feet of strong rope.
On April 17, 1942, he used the rope to climb down the cliff of the mountain prison. He shaved his distinctive mustache and met with a Special Operations Executive who provided him a change of clothes and identity papers. Desperate to make it back to France, he constantly took on different disguises and identities in order to make it through enemy territory and back home. Once in France, he was contacted by President Eisenhower, who offered safe passage to him and his sons in exchange for help with the African front of World War II.
Airey Neave was a man who was willing to do whatever it took to end his time as a POW. In February 1940, he was assigned to the 1st Searchlight Regiment, Royal Artillery in France. He was wounded at Calais in 1940 and was taken captive by the German Army. He made short work of escaping from his first prison camp, but was recaptured a few days later. He was interrogated by the Gestapo after he was recaptured, an experience that he solemnly rememebered as “unpleasant.”
Unwilling to risk another escape, the Germans transferred Neave to the “escape proof” Colditz Castle. From the moment he was imprisoned at the castle, he had a fanatical desire to escape. His first attempt came a mere six weeks after his imprisonment. Neave thought if he could convince the guards he was one of them, he could get past the gates and out of the prison. So, using materials from the theater department, he made himself a German uniform. However as soon as he made it out of the castle, the scenery paint he had used to make his clothes shone a very bright green under the searchlights. After another long interrogation, Neave was returned to the prison at Colditz.
The conditions at Colditz were not ideal as Neave was poorly fed and badly treated during his stay. He never stopped trying to come up with a way to escape and ended up working with a Dutch prisoner named Anthony Luteyn. The pair improved upon Neave’s original escape plan with both of them wearing German uniforms that they had created. Working with the theater gave them the perfect cover for their uniform creation, and a way out.
During a Saturday-night prison revue the two escaped through a trap door in the stage. Once outside the walls of the castle, Neave managed to make it 400 miles to the Swiss border. From there he managed a boat to England and became the first British officer to escape from Colditz and make it all the way back home.
Gus Anckorn was a member of the Royal Artillery stationed in Singapore in 1942. He was there for three days when an anti-personnel bomb was dropped just ten feet from the truck he was driving. Anckorn was severely wounded in the blast and was rushed to the hospital. His luck at surviving the blast was short-lived, as he was transferred to the hospital right before the Alexandria massacre.
Gus was still covered in blood and lying in his hospital bed when 100 Japanese soldiers entered the hospital. Those unable to walk were bayonetted in their beds, those who could walk were marched outside and shot. Unwilling to watch his own demise, he covered his face with a pillow and awaited his own bayonet wound. It never came.
Anckorn was taken as a POW and sent to work on the Burma Railway. Still weak from his prior wounds, he struggled to meet the demands of the Japanese overseers who wanted him to climb a 100 foot aqueduct. When he could not keep up one of the overseers poured hot tar down his back. The burns from the tar nearly killed Anckorn and he was sent to a hospital camp. All of the men who had been working on the aqueduct with him died in a matter of weeks as Anckorn recovered in the hospital. He was then sent back to work. The men were starved and beaten regularly.
Anckorn was well-versed in magic, and he used his skills to distract the guards so he and other prisoners could steal food. Once he took 49 eggs from the kitchen and gave them to the men to eat, telling the guard that he needed them to practice a trick. In August 1945, as the Allies were closing in on Japan, Anckorn and four others were put in front of a firing squad. But instead of being shot the Japanese soldiers started arguing among each other, likely about being changed with war crimes. He was led back to the camp where he was soon liberated by Allied forces.