Berrien Springs collection sheds light on internees in neutral lap of luxuryPublished 8:19am Thursday, August 20, 2009
BERRIEN SPRINGS – The History Center at Courthouse Square in Berrien Springs has received a rare collection of World War II artifacts that documents the story of American internees in Switzerland.
The collection includes photos, letters, scrapbooks, a uniform and other memorabilia that belonged to Clare W. Hubbard of Berrien Center, who spent more than eight months as an internee.
Historians of the conflict have studied prisoners of war but have rarely examined the little-known topic of servicemen interned in neutral Switzerland and Sweden.
Sgt. Hubbard served as a waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator, a four-engine heavy bomber.
His outfit, the 713th Squadron of the 448th Bombardment Group, was based at RAF Seething.
The 448th flew on missions over Germany from 1943 until the end of the war, striking at aircraft factories, U-Boat bases and railroad marshalling yards.
On July 13, 1944, Sgt. Hubbard and his crew took off on a mission to hit the railroad yards at Saarbrucken in southwest Germany.
They were new to the 713th, having joined the squadron at Seething just four days earlier, fresh from the United States.
The mission against Saarbrucken was the third for Hubbard and the crew of his B-24, Our Honey.
Our Honey was hit over the target and lost two engines.
The 25-ton bomber could not maintain position on just two engines and fell out of formation.
As the bomber began to lose altitude, pilot Dale Grubb and co-pilot Edwin Carnahan realized that they would never make it back to England.
Rather than parachute into Germany, they diverted south to Switzerland.
About 25 miles over the neutral border, the crew bailed out and Our Honey crashed near the tiny village of Baetterkinden, north of Berne.
Hubbard broke his leg in the jump and spent a month in the hospital.
All 10 members of his crew survived and found themselves guests of Switzerland.
The Swiss government placed them in an internment camp at Wengen, where it had turned 14 luxury hotels in the ski resort village into housing for American internees.
Wengen was just one of seven camps in Switzerland that housed American internees.
Under rules of the Hague Convention of 1907 governing the rights and duties of neutral countries, Switzerland did not legally have to accept foreign forces on its territory.
Once it did, however, it had certain obligations.
Foreign combatants were interned for the duration of the war.
They could be granted relative freedom of movement around the country, but had to give their parole not to attempt to escape.
If caught escaping, they could be sentenced to the squalid Wauwilermoos punishment camp.
During the course of the war, some 1,500 American fliers crashed or landed their battle-damaged airplanes in Switzerland.
The first airplane arrived under similar circumstances as Our Honey.
On Aug. 23, 1943, a B-24 Liberator had two engines shot out and could not make it over the Alps to its base in North Africa.
Its pilot ordered the navigator to plot a course for Switzerland.
After a successful crash-landing, the crew set fire to their bomber to destroy any military secrets.
Scores of other American bombers and fighters arrived in Switzerland during the next year and a half.
Our Honey was one of five American heavy bombers to crash or land in Switzerland on July 13 alone.
So many American fliers went to Switzerland that allegations arose – prompted by German propaganda – that pilots in undamaged planes had opted out of the war.
Rather than continue fighting, they headed to Switzerland.
An Army Air Force inquiry in 1944, however, revealed that virtually all of the aircraft in question had suffered serious battle damage.
The United States military never pressed charges against any of the aircrew.
Photographs and other materials in Hubbard’s scrapbooks show him with friends skiing in the Alps, visiting tourist sites and enjoying Christmas dinner at their hotel in Wengen.
His experience as an intern obviously differed greatly from that of prisoners of war in German stalags.
Despite the relative luxury of life in Switzerland, internees sometimes escaped and made their way back to England.
Clare Hubbard’s scrapbook includes an intriguing page of “Escape Pictures” showing him and his crewmates in civilian clothing.
Were the photographs intended for use on false identity cards that would help them get through France?
Unfortunately, the scrapbooks carried no further clue as to their purpose.
Not all internees in Switzerland enjoyed the kind of internship that Hubbard experienced in Wengen.
The Swiss sentenced some 200 American internees to the Wauwilermoos punishment camp in Lucerne, mostly for attempting to escape.
Conditions there were worse than in many German POW camps.
Prisoners slept on lice-infested straw spread on boards, ate food poured into troughs from slop pails and had no access to medical care, mail or Red Cross parcels.
The camp also housed Swiss criminals.
The commandant, Capt. Andre Beguin, was a Nazi who frequently signed correspondence “Heil Hitler.”
After the war, he was court-martialed and sentenced to several years’ imprisonment.
Clare Hubbard’s service records reveal that he was released from internment in March 1945 as the war in Europe drew to a close.
He arrived back in the United States later that month and returned to his wife, Thelma, whom he had married in 1939.
The couple later moved to Boca Raton, Fla., where they spent the rest of their lives.
Hubbard’s collection of World War II memorabilia has now found a permanent home in the History Center collections.
Besides the photographs and other archival materials, many physical reminders of Hubbard’s military experiences survive to this day.
Most of the air bases returned to farmland after the war, but the Royal Air Force base at Seething from which Hubbard and his crew left on their last mission still serves as a civilian airport.
The Palace Hotel, built in the 1930s, remains open today as the Club Med Wengen, serving tourists who come to the town for skiing holidays.
For more information about this unusual collection, contact The History Center at Courthouse Square at (269) 471-1202.