Streamed live on June 20, 2024

During World War II, 168 American airmen found themselves in one of the most notorious concentration camps of the Holocaust: Buchenwald. This unexpected and harrowing chapter of their captivity began in 1944 and stands as a grim reminder of the broader atrocities of the war.

Author Ric Martini joins us to discuss his research into this disturbing subject, which he compiled in his book Betrayed: Secrecy, Lies, and Consequences. Ric’s father, Frederic C. Martini, was one of those imprisoned at Buchenwald. These airmen were primarily bomber crew members shot down over German-occupied Europe.

Typically, Allied airmen captured by German forces were considered prisoners of war (POWs) and were sent to military-run POW camps, as stipulated by the Geneva Convention. However, this group of airmen faced a different fate due to a series of tragic misunderstandings and bureaucratic failings. After being shot down, the airmen initially evaded capture with the help of local resistance networks. Unfortunately, these efforts often ended in their eventual capture by German forces. Labeled as “terrorflieger” or “terror fliers” by the Nazi regime—propaganda that painted them as criminals rather than soldiers—their fate was dire. The Gestapo, rather than the military, took custody of these men.

The Gestapo bypassed the established protocol for treating captured Allied airmen and instead classified them as spies or saboteurs, stripping them of the protections normally afforded to POWs. In August 1944, these captured airmen were transported to Buchenwald, a concentration camp primarily used for political prisoners and other targets of the Nazi regime. Their arrival at Buchenwald was marked by shock and confusion; they were housed alongside political prisoners, resistance fighters, and other groups persecuted by the Nazis.

Conditions at Buchenwald were horrific. The airmen were subjected to the same brutal treatment as other inmates: overcrowding, inadequate food, harsh labor, and rampant disease. The camp’s SS guards showed no regard for their status as military personnel. Instead, the airmen faced beatings, deprivation, and the constant threat of execution. The turning point for these airmen came through the persistence and bravery of a few individuals. Among the prisoners were individuals who, through covert communication and sheer determination, managed to get word to the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) officers about the presence of Allied airmen in the camp.

The Luftwaffe, still adhering to some remnants of the military code of honor, was outraged to learn that legitimate POWs were being held in a concentration camp. Under pressure from the Luftwaffe, and fearing repercussions from the advancing Allied forces, the SS transferred the airmen to Stalag Luft III, a more conventional POW camp. This transfer occurred in October 1944, nearly two months after their initial arrival at Buchenwald. Despite their rescue from the concentration camp, the physical and psychological scars of their experience at Buchenwald remained with them. The story of the 168 American airmen held at Buchenwald highlights the complex interplay of military protocols, Nazi ideology, and the chaotic nature of wartime Europe. It underscores the brutality of the Nazi regime and the resilience of those who endured its horrors.

These airmen’s survival, against such grim odds, stands as a testament to their courage and the enduring human spirit amidst one of history’s darkest periods. But another disturbing element of this tragedy is that the 81 American veterans who returned home endured the indignity of the US government denying that they’d ever been there. The denial, based on “alternative facts,” had a profound effect on the lives of men who had first been betrayed to the Germans and then betrayed by the government they had suffered to defend. Ric’s father, like many other Buchenwald airmen, came home with serious medical problems and acute PTSD. These men were told by the VA that their problems were imaginary because they could not have been at Buchenwald. They were considered to be either lying or delusional.

This bizarre injustice continued for almost 40 years, until some of the files related to the Buchenwald airmen were declassified. Piecing together this story involved reviewing over 160,000 pages of declassified documents. Ric’s book project took seven years and required the assistance of archivists, curators, translators, and fellow researchers in the US, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and New Zealand. We’re grateful to UPMC for Life and Tobacco Free Adagio Health for sponsoring this event!