Did Uncle Sam Leave 15,000 to 20,000 GIs in Stalin’s Hands?
This is the fifth and final part in a series based on the new book American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character (St. Martin’s Press) by Diana West.
On March 3, 1945, under prodding from both the senior US military commander and US ambassador in Moscow, FDR cabled Stalin to request “urgently” that provisions be made for ten American rescue crews to move in and out of Soviet-captured territories to evacuate liberated American prisoners or war, many of whom required medical attention. With uncharacteristic punch, FDR underscored his request as being “of the greatest importance.”
On March 5, 1945, Stalin replied: Nyet. There were no groups of American ex-POWs in the Red zone, so no flights necessary. The Soviets would tell the British the same thing about an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 British ex-prisoners.
The US ambassador, Averill Harriman, knew Stalin was lying. He was hearing about hundreds, even thousands of lost American men roaming Soviet-held territory, and he was hearing straight from some who had made their way to Moscow.
On March 6, 1945, the Soviets forcibly took over Romania, shredding the Yalta agreement.
On March 8, 1945, Harriman cabled FDR that he had positive proof that Stalin’s statement regarding American POWs “was not repeat not true.” He stated that some three to four thousand Americans had been freed from German POW camps and were still unaccounted for.
On March 16, 1945, Churchill cabled FDR. “At present all entry into Poland has been barred to our representatives... This extends even to the liaison officers, British and American, who were to help in bringing out rescued prisoners of war... There is no doubt in my mind that the Soviets fear much our seeing what is going on in Poland.”
FDR would cable Stalin again on the matter. Following another rebuke – Stalin insisted that the remaining 17 American POWs in Red territory were en route home – FDR dropped the matter. He died a few weeks later.
This tense, behind the scenes discussion remained mostly unbeknownst to the American people for decades.
On May 12, 1945, the AP filed a startling report from Allied headquarters in Europe. “Nearly half of the estimated 200,000 British and 76,000 American prisoners of war still in Germany are believed to be within the Russian zone of occupation and Supreme Headquarters has twice requested a meeting to arrange their return.”
On May 19, 1945, Supreme Commander Eisenhower signed a cable stating: “Numbers of US prisoners estimated in Russian control 25,000.”
On May 22, 1945, Soviet and American delegations met in Halle, France, to settle the POW matter. Maj. Gen. R. W. Barker would write a chilling memo, noting that the Americans in Soviet custody were “in effect being held hostage”; “that we may find a reluctance to return them all”; and they might not come home for an “appreciable time to come.”
On May 30, 1945, the Kenner Memorandum, named for Gen. Albert Kenner, Eisenhower’s surgeon general at Allied headquarters, issued a memo stating that 20,000 American and 20,000 British soldiers remained in Soviet hands, along with literally hundreds of thousands of European nationals.
On May 31, 1945, the top US commander in Moscow, Maj. Gen. John R. Deane, wrote a top secret letter to his Soviet counterpart stating that 15,597 American soldiers were believed to be under Soviet control. That same day, the War Department in Washington announced “substantially all” American soldiers taken prisoner in Europe had been accounted for.
On June 1, 1945, Eisenhower signed a cable that read: “It is now estimated that only small numbers of U.S. prisoners of war still remain in Russian hands.”
“In other words,” states the May 23, 1991, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Minority Report on POW/MIA policy, “on June 1, 1945, the US government’s public position was that most America GIs taken prisoner have come home and been repatriated, even though the cable traffic for the previous fortnight was reporting between 15,000 and 20,000 still held.”
What happened to these men?
Diana West is the author of American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation's Character.