Jul 14, 2017

The War On Our Shore

Two stories dating back nearly 70 years ago, when something happened that nobody seems to ever talk about it. This is an episode of mysterious balloons, cowboy sheriffs, and nazi prisoners of war living right next door.

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JAD: Hey, I’m Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I’m Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab and today we’re going to travel back in time to World War II which is a war that has been chronicled and re-chronicled and re-imagined and told a thousand thousand thousand million times. But we actually have two stories for you today that took place during that war, right here on American soil, that were utterly surprising to us, that I’m betting you have never heard. And we’re going to call today’s show, the War on Our Shore. And to start--


PETER: My name is Peter Lang-Stanton.


NICK: My name’s Nick Ferraga


ROBERT: Well, it--we’re gonna get a story from two reporters


PETER: I’m a freelance filmmaker


NICK: Freelance reporter


PETER: Writer slash radio producer, too many slashes


ROBERT: Should we start with, with air currents, or like with--


PETER: I mean I want to start with--can we go to Thermopolis, Wyoming? Because that was one of the first really well-documented landings.


ROBERT: All right. Thermopolis, Wyoming?


RC: Well it’s the first week of December, 1944




JAD: This is Ross Cohen, he’s a historian and he wrote a book that’s pretty much the definitive account of the story you’re about to hear. Anyhow, Thermopolis, Wyoming, December 1944


ROSS COHEN: And there are three miners at a place called the Highline Coal Mine, which is outside of Thermopolis. They step outside the mine one evening. It’s just about dusk. And just as they step out of the mine they hear this whistling sound over their heads. And then a moment later there’s [SFX] a tremendous explosion and they see this rising cloud of dust about a mile away across the valley. They turn and look. It’s dusk, and so in the fading twilight they can’t be sure exactly what they’re looking at


NICK: But above them there’s sort of this fluttering, white circle


PETER: Just floating there. They made sense of it by thinking it was a parachutist


ROSS COHEN: They get in their car and they chase after it until eventually they lose sight of it in the



NICK: Right around that same time, about 500 miles away in Colorado,


PETER: A boy and his dad are working in the barn when [SFX] they hear an explosion. They run outside and in their yard there’s just this smoldering crater.


ROSS COHEN: In Wyoming a nine year old boy playing in his front yard hears an explosion


NICK: All throughout the winter of 1944


ROSS COHEN: In Burwell, Nebraska


NICK: These strange parachute things


ROSS COHEN: Native residents hear a loud explosion


NICK: Just start appearing in the skies all over America


PETER: Napa, California


NICK: Lame Deer, Montana


PETER: 20 or so miles from downtown Detroit


NICK: Over farms


PETER: Nogales, Arizona


NICK: And slipping behind hills


PETER: Rigby, Idaho.


ROSS COHEN: Everybody who sees these things, all of them have different explanations for what they think they’re witnessing


NICK: The US military sends out an APB to local police stations saying we need information. What are these things?


XX: Try again

MARION HYDE: Testing, testing


XX: A there we go--




NICK: Enter Sheriff


PETER: Warren Hyde


MARION HYDE: My name is Marion Hyde


NICK: Warren Hyde actually died in 1989, so


MARION HYDE: I’m the oldest son of Sheriff Hyde


NICK: We talked to his son


MARION HYDE: He had a presence about him that he kind of commanded a room


PETER: Sheriff Hyde was a big guy


MARION HYDE: Black wavy hair, broad at the shoulders, narrow at the hips


NICK: Stetson, gun on his hip


PETER: And one day


MARION HYDE: From what I understand, a dry farmer called him


PETER: Said there’s this strange contraption in my field


NICK: Some kind of balloon, parachute looking thing floating around


MARION HYDE: So he jumped in the car and went hell bent for leather out in the Blue Creek area


PETER: There’s this crazy story where he rushes out to this farm


NICK: To investigate


PETER: Hops out of his car


NICK: Rips off his belt with his .38 pistol, because a man can’t run with a .38 pistol on his waist


MARION HYDE: And took off after the balloon


PETER: Here’s what he sees in that field. It was-I mean if you look at a picture of this thing, it’s this huge globe. 30 feet in diameter


ROBERT: Oh wow


PETER: Paper white.


NICK: And then coming down from this globe are these thick, 40 foot ropes and at the bottom, attached to it is a heavy metal chandelier with bombs hanging off the bottom. And Sheriff Hyde, he sees this thing, runs out into the field, grabs onto the ropes to maybe tie it down, but just as he grabs it


MARION HYDE: A gust of wind comes by


PETER: Lifts him up off the ground


MARION HYDE: Like he was a paper doll


NICK: And so he’s dangling from the ropes of this thing, the balloon is above him, the explosives are below him and it takes him across this canyon, and he’s holding on just dangling from it, still trying to wrangle it like some bucking bronco. He lands again. He tries to tie it to a juniper bush or something but the wind catches it again and goes back over the canyon


ROBERT: Back over the first side?


NICK: Back to the first side


MARION HYDE: And they started to float around the field. He kept wrestling this balloon for a long time


NICK: He’s nauseous from being spun around on this balloon


PETER: His vision is getting blurry


NICK: His hands are becoming raw from the rope


PETER: But he feels like this sense of duty


MARION HYDE: He knew that the government wanted one of these balloons


PETER: It’s his territory so he’s got to take it down


MARION HYDE: That’s right


PETER: He finally


NICK: Lets himself freefall


PETER: So he can grab it again


NICK: So his weight will jerk the balloon to the ground




MARION HYDE: Then finally the balloon came down in kind of a little ravine where sagebrush were growing and a root had been exposed on the side of the ravine from a sagebrush


NICK: And he hooks his arm around this root


MARION HYDE: Then he was able to hold the balloon without being carried into the air


JAD: So he actually captured the thing?


NICK: yeah


PETER: J. Edgar Hoover wrote him a personal letter of thanks


ROSS COHEN: They end up shipping all off the evidence off to the Aberdeen military research facility


NICK: Where they had gathered all this different evidence from all over the country. And they were able to tell that


ROSS COHEN: Apparently this bomb matched known characteristics of Japanese bombs.


JAD: So it’s Japanese




NICK: But, it’s impossible to send a balloon across the Pacific Ocean at this point. I mean it’s never, never been done. It’s basically an intercontinental ballistic missile. So they’re trying to figure out where it’s coming from. They thought maybe they were being launched from submarines, maybe they were coming from beaches in North America, from saboteurs


PETER: There was even speculation at one point that maybe they were coming from Japanese internment camps in North America






ROSS COHEN: Two days before Christmas, 1944


NICK: In Alaska, a native Alaskan trapper tracks one down


ROSS COHEN: And it has two sandbags still attached to the bottom most ring


NICK: And that turns out to be


PETER: They key to the mystery


JAD: Sand?


NICK: Yeah


ELISA BERGSLIEN: Well, not just sand. There’s a lot in there. My name is Elisa Bergslien and I am a forensic geologist


NICK: We called up Elisa to help us understand this next part


PETER: What happened was the sand from the balloons was sent to Washington DC to some scientists at the US Geological Survey




ROSS COHEN: They discover that there’s no coral


ELISA BERGSLIEN: So finding no coral, you know, you’re talking cold water now


ROSS COHEN: They look at the diatoms


ELISA BERGSLIEN: Marine bivalves


ROSS COHEN: Microscopic fossils


ELISA BERGSLIEN: Mollusks, minerals


ROSS COHEN: By compiling all of these different characteristics


ELISA BERGSLIEN: But that all together, where would you find these diatoms, these minerals, that you wouldn’t find coral. All those different pieces of information


NICK: All together


ROSS COHEN: The geologists are able to determine that there are two or perhaps three beaches in the world


ELISA BERGSLIEN: That fit all of these qualifications


ROSS COHEN: Where they believe this sand could have come from and all of which are on the east coast of Honshu, the largest of Japan’s four main islands


JAD: You can get that kind of specific from sand?




ROBERT: Why would the Japanese choose to deliver bomb payloads by balloon. It’s a strange choice


JAD: Particularly after Pearl Harbor, you know, it’s like we already know they can do planes, right


ROBERT: Yeah they got planes


JAD: Yeah, why balloons




ARCHIVAL CLIP: Now it can be told, history in the making


ROSS COHEN: It grew directly out of the Doolittle raid


PETER: Back in April of 1942


ARCHIVAL CLIP: United States Navy aircraft carrier Hornet steams westward across the Pacific


ROSS COHEN: Jimmy Doolittle and his raiders


PETER: Took off from an aircraft carrier deep in the Western Pacific


ROSS COHEN: And dropped bombs on Tokyo and Yokohama and a number of other cities across Japan


ARCHIVAL CLIP: Greatest surprise raid in the history of area warfare


PETER: Now they didn’t do a lot of damage physically


ROSS COHEN: But it was such a shock to the Japanese to think that their homeland could be invaded, that these planes could actually fly over the Imperial Palace, the home of the emperor and--


ROBERT: Doolittle went over the palace, I did not realize that--




ROBERT: He went all the way downtown in Tokyo


ROSS COHEN: Oh yeah, right over the city. And so immediately after the Doolittle raid an order went out, it was just find a way to bomb America


NICK: Now Japan’s navy is stretched so thin at this point in the war, there’s no way they can pull off something like the Doolittle raid


PETER: They didn’t have aircraft carriers that could get their planes close enough to the US mainland


NICK: But what they did have was the wind


ROSS COHEN: Today we call this the jetstream. That name didn’t come along until after the war


PETER: At that point we barely knew about the jetstream


ROSS COHEN: But prior to and during the war, the Japanese did extensive research into these winds


PETER: OK, so in 1924, there’s this meteorologist named Wasserboroish, and he goes to the top of a mountain and he releases a bunch of these little paper weather balloons. And he discovers that at about 30,000 feet up, there’s this river of fast moving air, speeds up to 170 miles per hour, carrying everything in its midst. Pollen, insects, all the way to North America within days.


NICK: And after the Doolittle raid they thought maybe if we were to release a bunch of balloons in just the right place at just the right time


PETER: Maybe this jetstream of air could


ROSS COHEN: Push these balloons across the pacific ocean




PETER: So this is Tetsko Tanaka. She was interviewed in this independent documentary called On Paper Wings




NICK: In 1944 she says she was a teenager when the Japanese military came to her school and basically turned it into a factory.




PETER: She and hundreds of other school children were conscripted to begin making this special kind of paper out of mulberry wood called


MA HO SHINA: Wasi. Handmade, Japanese traditional paper


NICK: This is Ma Ho Shina, who now works at the Noborito Institute in Japan


MA HO SHINA: A huge amount of paper was required


PETER: Ma Ho says that girls would work 12 hour days making thousands, tens of thousands of these sheets and gluing them together


NICK: And after they finished producing the balloons and after the balloons were strapped with bombs, they were shipped off to those beaches. And just let go.


PETER: People from the Japanese side watching them take off said they looked like huge jellyfish swimming through a pale blue sky.


ROSS COHEN: These perfectly silent vehicles, the only sound was the rustling of the paper as they took off


ROBERT: How many were launched?


ROSS COHEN: From November 1944 to April 1945 they launched 9,000 balloons


JAD: Wow


ROSS COHEN: They I guess figured it would be more terrifying to have bombs raining down silently from above with no calling card than with a Japanese calling card


ARCHIVAL CLIP: And as the last sandbag is dropped, now only the central payload is left


NICK: This is audio from a declassified Navy instructional video made about these balloon bombs in 1945:


ARCHIVAL CLIP: In the event one of these units is found, do these two things to render it harmless


NICK: It explains to soldiers how to--what to do if they find one of these bombs and how to defuse the bomb. But I think one of the most interesting thing about the video is this text that’s written in huge block letters right at the bottom of the screen. It says, do not aid the enemy by publishing or broadcasting or discussing information


MIKE SWEENEY: Information can be a powerful tool. It can be a powerful tool for good and a powerful tool for evil


NICK: This is professor Mike Sweeney


MIKE SWEENEY: And i’m a historian of wartime censorship


NICK: And he says that immediately after those first balloons landed


MIKE SWEENEY: There are a few stories that appear in the local newspapers in the far west. Stories about a Japanese attack on the mainland of the United States


NICK: Time and Newsweek even picked it up

MIKE SWEENEY: Saying, we’re not sure what these are, but are these Japanese spies coming in on these balloons?


NICK: Is this a large scale attack?


MIKE SWEENEY: What is going on? And then very shortly thereafter


NICK: Just three days after those Time and Newsweek articles


MIKE SWEENEY: The office of censorship initiated a press blackout


ROSS COHEN: This blackout on news


NICK: They sent out memos and telegraphs to all major wire services


ROSS COHEN: The UP, the AP, and the INS saying


MIKE SWEENEY: Keep any news of these Japanese balloons off the wires and out of print


ROSS COHEN: Any stories of these bombs will have to be approved by the appropriate authority of the US Army if you wish to publish or broadcast news about them


JAD: And why would they want to keep this secret?


MIKE SWEENEY: So the government’s ideas about why balloon bombs should be censored, in particular army’s ideas, were number one, to avoid panic


PETER: These things are instruments of terror, right. You can’t be afraid of something you don’t know exists


MIKE SWEENEY: Number two is avoid helping Japan. It was thought then that if we printed exact coordinates of particular bomb landings that this would help Japan better target the bombs


JAD: And what did the reporters think about this?


MIKE SWEENEY: They grumbled sometimes but they complied


ROBERT: Really?


MIKE SWEENEY: Yeah. Everyone in the news industry was as patriotic as the rest of the country, that is the vast majority of journalists supported the war.


ROSS COHEN: And of course if you screwed up and sent out a story that got American lives killed, you could be prosecuted under the espionage act. Furthermore, could you imagine what your listeners would do if you were the radio station identified as killing a hundred American sailors?


NICK: So the newspapers and radio stations kept their mouths shut, which meant that most Americans never even heard this was happening, and more importantly, the Japanese weren’t really hearing about whether their bombs made it or not. So, they probably concluded that it was basically a failed experiment. Which largely it was. Of the 9,000 released, virtually none caused any damage, and certainly not any terror. Except for this one balloon


PETER: That’s coming up




JAD: Hey I’m Jad Abumrad


ROBERT: I’m Robert Krulwich


JAD: This is Radiolab. We continue now with our story from reporters Peter Lang Stanton and Nick Farago about the 9,000 or so balloon bombs that Japan sent to America in 1944 and 45 that rained down on American soil and created nothing. Nothing really. Nothing happened. No damage, no terror, nothing


NICK: But then we get to this tiny little town called Bly


CORA CONNOR: To me, there’s no place like old Bly


NICK: Bly is this sleepy little logging town in the base of Gearhart Mountain in South Central Oregon


CORA CONNOR: Lots of pretty scenery


NICK: And Cora Connor, who you just heard, was born and raised there


CORA CONNOR: You know everybody and you’re just like a big family out there


NICK: In the 40s when Cora was a young girl, there were about 700 people living there


CORA CONNOR: Yeah. But we did all kinds of fun things. We had a fish fry up at Dog Lake, huge catfish fry. The whole town stayed all night, went back home the next day. In the winter the canals would freeze over and we’d have bonfire and ice skating parties and it was a fun place to live


NICK: Can you tell me about the morning--it was a Sunday?


CORA CONNOR: Let’s see what happened. I’m trying to think. Saturday I think. May 5th is all I can remember. Yep, that was may 5th


ROSS COHEN: May 5, 1945


CORA CONNOR: I thought it was a beautiful day. The sun was shining bright


ROSS COHEN: And the Reverend Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie who was five months pregnant with their first child


CORA CONNOR: Knew them very well. Sunday school. I went to church and took vacations of up there


ROSS COHEN: They took their Sunday School class out for a picnic. There were five children that went along on that trip, ages 11 to 14


NICK: And one of the kids


CORA CONNOR: We called him Dickie. He had a crush on my sister who was a little younger than

  1. And they wanted her to come on this picnic so they came by and stopped the pastor and his wife stopped trying to talk--to convince my mom to let my sister go or both of us or whatever. But mom didn't’ want us to go because Saturday was our chore day and my day to work the switchboard, which usually made me pretty angry, but it was my job. And she said no, well my sister didn’t really want to go because she really wasn’t encouraging this relationship too much. Yeha, Dickie, yeah. No.


PETER: So Archie and Elsie and the five kids get back into the car


ROSS COHEN: And they drove up to Gearhart Mountain


PETER: And a couple miles up a logging road they pass some forest service guys working on the road. They go a little further to where the road comes near a creek


ROSS COHEN: And Archie pulled the car around and parked. They kids jumped out of the car and started running down toward the creek. Elsie who was pregnant as I mentioned she was feeling a bit carsick, she jumped out to get some fresh air and to chase after the kids while Archie went around to the trunk of the car to get out the fishing poles and the picnic baskets, et cetera. One of the children saw something on the ground. A large canvas, white gray, balloon of some kind spread out on the ground. Called to the other children to come have a look. The children and Elsie apparently gathered in a tight circle around the balloon. Archie later reported that while he was getting the picnic basket out of the trunk, his wife called to him, honey look at what we found. He turned and took a few steps towards them and at that moment--we’ll never know exactly what happened, but apparently one of the children reached down to pick up the device. The bomb detonated. All five children and Elsie Mitchell were killed instantly.


PETER: The forest service guys down the road were close enough to hear the blast


ROSS COHEN: They come running when they hear the explosion and they see Archie Mitchell has run to the site and his wife’s clothes were ablaze. And Archie was kneeling over his prostate wife beating out the fire with his bare hands.






PETER: There’s no wind


NICK: On our last day in Bly we went to visit the site where the bomb went off


NICK: It’s the middle of nowhere. It’s just a chain--it’s just a little fenced off area. Like a little pen.


NICK: And there were these tall pine trees.


NICK: It’s just huge cuts in the tree


JAD: Were those shrapnel cuts in the tree?




NICK: Yeha, they still--this hasn’t, has not healed.


PETER: Eerie place


CORA CONNOR: Of course I didn’t know what was going on.


PETER: This is Cora Connor again. At the time she was at her job, watching the switchboard when


CORA CONNOR: A guy that was working up there for the forest service comes rushing into the telephone office and I mean he was scared. Pure white and scared. And I thought, my god what’s going on? What’s happening? And he came in and made the call to Lakeview


PETER: The naval base in Lakeview. And about half an hour later you know this big, imposing military guy comes in


CORA CONNOR: He was all medals and all full uniform, you know. And he must have made it it seemed like in the blink of an eye. And I thought, my god what has happened? And then when the--he talked over the phone I knew what was going on. He said they’d had a bomb explode up there, with casualties. And then he talked to me. He said, do not talk to anybody about anything that you’ve heard here. Not your mother, not anybody. He says, now you’re not to leave this office. By then I was just jelly I was so terrified


NICK: He leaves and the world is trickling around, spreading around town


CORA CONNOR: They knew something had gone wrong. And they gathered around the phone office because the phone office knows everything in the whole valley. And they knew I knew what was going on, and that’s when it all hit


NICK: Pretty soon there was a crowd outside


Cora Connor: Screaming and yelling at me


NICK: At you?


CORA CONNOR: Yeah. We know you know what’s going on. You better come out and tell us. We’re coming in there and you’re gonna tell us what’s happened


PETER: These people are your neighbors and things like that?


CORA CONNOR: People--yeah.


PETER: That know you and they’re saying


CORA CONNOR: That know. Yeah, because Bly’s a very tiny place. I probably knew every one of them. I was about--you can imagine the state I was in. And Mr. Patsky


PETER: Dickie’s father. Dickie was the boy who had a crush on Cora’s sister


CORA CONNOR: I can tell you exactly how he was dressed that day. He had on a read and black checkered hunting shirt and his red hunting cap.


NICK: At the time all he knew was that his son was missing


CORA CONNOR: He stood out there and he shook his fist and he yelled and he scared me half to death, threatening to come in and all that. He says, you know what’s happening. Let us know what’s happening. And I couldn’t do anything. I sat there all day


PETER: How old were you?


CORA CONNOR: 16. You know, it really really tore me apart. I was just in a complete fog for days. I’d never talked too much about it. Nope.


PETER: Within a day or so the military told ost of the town what actually happened that day


CORA CONNOR: And a short time after that a big army truck--well there was two big army trucks and they stopped right out in front of our house. We wondered what was going on you know, your little town like that, anything different everyone goes to the window and takes a look. And here come--OK, this is awfully hard for me. A woman and a little kid jumped out of the back of that truck. She was Japanese. They were on their way to the Tooley Lake


NICK: The Japanese internment camp nearby


CORA CONNOR: And she’s screaming and crying and praying. Please, we need water, we need water. It was hot. It was really hot that day and they were in a canvas covered truck, jammed in there. And I grabbed a pitcher, a bucket or whatever was in the kitchen, filled it with water and started out the door. By that time they were throwing rocks at that lady and her kid. People in that town were so terribly upset and they were throwing rocks at her. And mom wouldn’t let me go. And I screamed and cried at my mother because she wouldn’t let me--she says, well you can’t go out there. They’ll throw rocks at you. I won’t let you go. And to this day that picture is in my mind. And I’ve prayed to the Lord to forgive the people that were doing that and try to--I can’t accept it. Nothing can make me accept what happened. I thought that was the most horrible thing in the world people could do. A woman and child they had nothing to do with the bomb, nothing to do with the war. Nothing. It--still hard. How can people be that way? It upset me so horribly bad. I didn’t want to talk about it. I couldn’t talk for 40 years.


JAD: It’s weird like, there’s a kind of weird scary symmetry to this thing. Like the Japanese military was trying to create terror, right. Like what they felt after Doolittle. And so they wanted to make this situation where like bombs were falling silently from the sky. We couldn’t even tell where they were coming from. Almost like the gods were dropping them. But we kept it quiet so nobody panicked. Except by not saying anything, at least in this one small instance, it created exactly the situation that the Japanese military wanted. I mean not on the scale that they wanted but like in its effect. It’s like a concentrated version of the thing they were trying to create.


ROBERT: Right but that’s the war


JAD: That’s the problem


ROBERT: That’s not a problem. Five is a sacrifice in war, what is it five, six people. There wre 125 million people in America then.


JAD: Hm. I think there actually might have been a little bit more than that


ROBERT: Well you can see what it would have been like listening to this story, you could see what it would have been like if this story had been well-known and had been told from person to person, if everybody was looking up wondering where the next strange thing was coming from


JAD: Well they wouldn’t--there might have been panic, but those kids wouldn’t have tugged on the balloon


ROBERT: That’s the choice


JAD: Because they would have known, yeah


ROSS COHEN: At the end of the war, the war department destroyed all of the evidence. They didn't want these--any evidence of these balloons just out there in general circulation




ROSS COHEN: This is one of those footnotes to the war that you know, at the end of the war, just never--people forgot about something they didn’t know about anyway




PETER: Ross, are there anymore out there?


ROSS COHEN: It’s estimated by the war department that of the 9,000 released, they thought that maybe seven to ten percent of the total would have survived the transoceanic crossing and arrived in North America. That’s 900. 300 are confirmed as having arrived in North America. So that means there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, that arrived in North America but were never accounted for. In the ten or 12 years immediately after the end of World War II, a couple dozen of these things were found. And then the recoveries stopped more or less


ROBERT: Were they alive, like the one in Oregon--if you touched them would they blow up?


ROSS COHEN: Some of them were. Some of them were. Now here’s the fascinating part. October of 2014, I kid you not


BRAD SINGLINGER: Dave was ahead of me and he’d stopped and said, I think I found a bomb


ROSS COHEN: A couple of loggers


BRAD SINGLINGER: My name is Brad Singlinger


DAVID BRIDGEMAN: My name is Dave Bridgeman


ROSS COHEN: In Lumey, British Columbia who were doing some survey work


DAVID BRIDGEMAN: You know, this is the middle of nowhere


ROSS COHEN: Found the remnants of a Japanese balloon that had been on the ground for 70 years


BRAD SLINGLINGER: And we definitely work in remote areas in general and we don’t see much except trees and rocks and you know, there are those odd special days where you see things that no one else gets to see


ROSS COHEN: I tell ya, if you’re hiking, if you’re out in the woods in the Pacific Northwest, watch where you step.


ROBERT: Thank you to Peter Lang Stanton and to Nicker Ferago for their reporting and extensive reporting


JAD: Yeah. Big thanks to them, big thanks to them. Also thanks to Illana Soul whose documentary On Paper Wings was a big source for us that you heard those Japanese voices in the middle of the story. That came from her documentary. Also we have original music for this hour from a couple of folks: Jeff Taylor, Michael Manning, David Wingo, Justin Walter. And if you want to see these balloon bombs we have some incredible pictures on our website, radiolab.org. Coming up next we’ve got one more story about the war on our shores and I’ve got to say this one is a real doozy. I remember it when it was pitched, the entire staff just sat there like riveted. That’s coming up next.




JAD: Hey I’m Jad Abumrad


ROBERT: I’m Robert Krulwich


JAD: This is Radiolab, and today we’re telling war stories. And this next one, well


ROBERT: What we’re going to tell you is an old story. It’s about 70 years old, but it’s not really as old as that at all because you’ll notice that it hasn’t ended.


JAD: And it comes to us from reporter Karen Duffin




JAD: OK, where to start--do you have a sense of where to start?


KAREN: Well I could blame it on my dad


DAD: And that’s the house I grew up in, just so you know


KAREN: Oh, right.


DAD: That’s my bedroom window


JAD: This is Karen and her dad looking at pictures of his childhood home


KAREN: He grew up in this tiny town in Idaho called Aberdeen


KAREN: Good old Aberdeen, I forgot how much--


JAD: On a potato farm.


KAREN: He loves to talk about the farm. Like he thinks we should all live on a farm.


DAD: It’s pretty cool


KAREN: So we were talking one day and he mentions very casually as if its like something we all know, he says, yeah back when we had Nazi prisoners of war working on our farm. And I was like, time out. What?


ROBERT: Really that’s what he-- this was parenthetical?


KAREN: Yeah it was totally like, yeah we’re picking potatoes and then yeah the Nazi prisoners of war were helping us


DAD: Sort of remember how old I was just by how tall the guards were. They were very tall.


KAREN: He was only three or four at the time


KAREN: Do you know if there were like dozens of prisoners or just like a handful?


DAD: Oh, there was a bunch


JAD: I didn’t even know there was prisoners of war, Nazi prisoners of war in America ever


KAREN: Yeah. Me either.


KATHY KIRKPATRICK: Yeha, OK, so that was the first time--


KAREN: So after I talked to my dad, I ended up calling this historien


KATHY KIRKPATRICK: Kathy Kirkpatrick


KAREN: Because i wanted to know, was this just an Aberdeen thing?


KATHY KIRKPATRICK: No. Like you were talking about Idaho


KAREN: She told me that in Idaho alone


KATHY KIRKPATRICK: There’s branch camps in Aberdeen and Blackfoot and Emmett and Folly Lake and Idaho Falls


KAREN: There were 23 different camps. Generally you had prisoners that were in churches


KATHY KIRKPATRICK: Tent cities, St. Paul


KAREN: Rodeo grounds




KAREN: High school gyms




KAREN: And this was the case all across the country.


KATHY KIRKPATRICK: The only state that did not have prisoners of war was Vermont


JAD: Wow


KATHY KIRKPATRICK: And the maximum we had over 371,000 Germans, 51,000 Italians and 5,000 Japanese.


KAREN: Almost half a million people


JAD: Oh my god


KAREN: Why does nobody know about this?


KATHY KIRKPATRICK: We just don’t talk about it--I think we don’t--I don’t know.


JAD: But today we are going to talk about it. But not just because it’s a cool historical thing, but because it raises a question


CLIP: Breaking news this noon, a stunning report looking into how the CIA interrogated detainees--


JAD: A question that


CLIP: On top secret interrogation tactics


JAD: With torture reports


CLIP: Bizarre, even sadistic--


JAD: And Abu Ghraib


CLIP: Prisoners being abused by American soldiers


JAD: Guantanamo Bay. Questions that we are still trying to answer today, which is, you know, when you capture an enemy soldier, take them out of the battle, out of the fight, how should you treat that person?


ROBERT: And if both sides agreed to follow certain rules and one side doesn’t, what do you do?


JAD: And the interesting thing was 70 years ago this question was playing out in this really dramatic way in all of these towns across America


KAREN: There were about 200 basecamps that were huge. They were like up to 8,000 people


JAD: And by the way that’s like 70 times the size of Guantanamo Bay currently. In any case, as she was researching, Karen started to zoom into one camp in particular


KAREN: So this is really illustrative of what happened. There’s this one camp in Aliceville, Alabama. It’s this tiny town of like 1,500 people. But the camp has 6,000 people.


JAD: Wow that’s like four times the size of the town


KAREN: Yeah. So I went and interviewed a bunch of people--guards, prisoners, locals, from Aliceville and


THOMAS SWEET: It was quite a day


KAREN: That’s Thomas Sweet. He worked in Aliceville. And he told me the day the prisoners came, so a thousand of them came at first, and the police were like, nobody allowed on the street. But of course


THOMAS SWEET: When word got out that the first train load was coming everybody rushed out on the street


MAN: The say the train come in there wasn’t supposed to be any townspeople. But of course there was


WOMAN: Everybody was out


MAN: The road was lined with kids from three years old up to people 70 years old


KAREN: So these voices are from an oral history project that was recorded in 1994 about the prison camp in Aliceville.


WOMAN: So we all climbed the lumber pile so we could see them when we got off the train


KAREN: So everybody’s super nervous


CLIP: [indistinct yelling]


KAREN: Because they have these images in their head


MAN: In my mind, just like a lot of people in Aliceville, they didn’t know what kind of devils was going to get off that train. Guys with horns on their head


KAREN: So these prisoners that were sent to Aliceville were actually part of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and these guys were the most feared of Hitler’s fighters


MAN: They were supposed to be the elite


ARCHIVAL CLIP: So-called Nazi superman


KAREN: The Nazi superman, right. So the train pulls up.


MAN: They stop right on the main highway


KAREN: Doors open. And then hundreds and hundreds of German soldiers get out


WOMAN: And they were marching with that German march.


KAREN: And they’re singing their military songs in German


CLIP: [German singing]

WOMAN: Tell us about what is was like, what you thought when you got off the train. What did they look like, did they have on uniforms?


WOMAN: Oh yes.


KAREN: So when you listen to the oral histories, it’s really clear that this was a really complicated moment for the people in Aliceville


WOMAN: The people of Aliceville were scared to death


MAN: I didn’t know whether I was going to be mad at them when they first come in or what, but when I see they were just a bunch of whipped kids


WOMAN: There was a feeling of concern in our hearts for them


MAN: When I seen them they was nothing but a bunch of young kids


WOMAN: How young they were


MAN: Haggard looking and washed up and beat


WOMAN: Wounded and some of them had maggots--oh just gruesome


MAN: You could tell they’d been through a rough time


HANS COPER: It was awful for us


KAREN: That’s Hans Copera, he was one of the prisoners stepping out of the train that day. He’d been drafted into the army against his will, captured in North Africa, and then he was sent to America in the bottom of this big cargo ship


HANS COPERA: and in one room they crowded 700 people. You couldn’t even sit. There was no toilet, of course, we had only ten boxes. We all were wet, soaked with urine. It was awful. It was an awful trip


MAN: And you kind of had to feel sorry for them


KAREN: And then on the other hand and you hear this too in the oral histories, the people in Aliceville are thinking, these are Nazis. These are the men who are killing our sons


WOMAN: You know, I had three brothers overseas at the same time. So we didn’t like them. That’s just the way we felt.


KAREN: OK, so there’s that question in people’s mind, and this is playing out all across the country, here’s the enemy at your mercy. What do you do? How do you treat them? They’re in your hands. Nobody's’ watching. You can do whatever you want with them at that point. In theory.


JAD: But in practice?


KAREN: Well actually this was a significant moment for the world. I mean, 14 years before a bunch of countries had gotten together and they’d made up rules for exactly this kind of moment


ARCHIVAL CLIP: In 1929 at Geneva, long before Hitler and his partners began to eye the real estate of the world, there was an international conference. Here nations solemnly promised to uphold the rules covering the treatment of prisoners of war.


ARNOLD KRAMER: Oh it was a series of dos and don’ts.


KAREN: That’s historian Arnold Kramer. He’s a professor at Texas A&M. Some of the rules he says are pretty basic


ARNOLD KRAMER: That women and children should be protected


KAREN: So you had to give prisoners a certain amount of food


ARCHIVAL CLIP: Prisoners are entitled to the same quantity of rations, clothing, and living quarters as afforded our own troops


KAREN: And then there’s rules about medical attention, labor


KATHY KIRKPATRICK: While the Geneva convention says yes you can use people for labor


KAREN: Kathy Kirkpatrick again


KATHY KIRKPATRICK: You also should be paying people for labor. The rate of payment was 80 cents a day


KAREN: So the Geneva conventions are this attempt to kind of civilize the uncivilized thing which is war


ARNOLD KRAMER: You see the first World War was so horrific


KAREN: Hundreds of thousands of prisoners died in POW camps


ARNOLD KRAMER: There were no real regulations with regard to prisoners. Sides did almost anything they wanted


KAREN: So the Geneva conventions of 1929 was an attempt to kind of set things right


ARNOLD KRAMER: Because people kind of just couldn’t fathom another war to end wars


THOMAS SWEET: We were well-trained in the Geneva convention


KAREN: That’s Thomas Sweet again. He was actually one of the guards at camp Aliceville. And what he said is that even before the POWs arrived, the Geneva conventions were drilled into their heads. They had lectures, the rules were posted in the rec hall and in the officers club


THOMAS SWEET: We had to--the prisoners had to be treated the same as you would your own fellow soldiers


KAREN: Which sounds kind of basic. But for somebody like Hans who’s stepping off this train and wondering how he’s gonna be treated


HANS COPERA: It was--I should say it was really a sort of heaven


MAN: When they got into the barracks had all been laid out


WOMAN: Barricks were fresh and clean


MAN: They had towels and shaving equipment for each one of them at each one’s bunks


KAREN: The prisoners washed up and then the guards opened up the cafeteria


WF: Then we got to eat good things


KAREN: This is Walter Fetzholder, he was another prisoner at Aliceville


WALTER FETZHOLDER: We got a piece of white bread, of your American white bread. And we got peanut butter. I didn’t know what a peanut was. And it tasted wonderful, wonderful. It was the best dinner I ever had. And I always when I think on the good times, I think on peanut butter.


KAREN: And here’s the funny thing. Like, as you look into this, you start to realize we’re not just following the Geneva conventions the letter of the law. WE’re going above and beyond and within two months they have an orchestra. Within a year they have three orchestras.


JAD: This is POW-led orchestras?


KAREN: Yes. Yes.


JAD: So they’re being given instruments?


KAREN: They’re making instruments, the locals are donating instruments, the YMCA is giving them instruments


CLIP: [German singing]


KAREN: They open a school


CLIP: [German singing]


KAREN: You can learn anything from pottery to mathematics, almost any language you want to learn


CLIP: [German singing]


KAREN: And they set up correspondence programs with the local universities. You could get credit




THOMAS SWEET: They had soccer games just about every day. They drew big crowds


KAREN: They had a newspaper. Their newspaper was called the Fenced Guest and it had like poetry


JAD: The Fenced Guest


KAREN: Right. They also did a lot of theatrical productions


KATHY KIRKPATRICK: And sometimes threw regular art shows


KAREN: So this is where things get a little bit strange


EW: On December 18th, there was another art exhibition


KAREN: This is a woman named Ellen Wanders, whose father was a POW at the camp. And here she’s reading from his diary


EW: December 12, de fuhrer--that means Hitler--had sent 12,572 dollars to open the art exhibition in camp V.


JAD: OK wait she’s saying that Hitler sent money to the camp for an art thing?




JAD: While--during--while we’re fighting Hitler he’s sending money?


KAREN: Yeah.


CLIP: [German singing]


KAREN: Um, OK so--


JAD: OK. So with Hitler’s Christmas gift to the art show and the ham and the bands and all that stuff, did people in the, outside the camp know what was going on inside?


KAREN: You know, once they start, so--I think it was in 1943 was the point at which we started realizing we’re running out of American men to do labor and we look around and we’re like, well actually we have quite a few men who might be able to do some work here.


MAN: A lot of them prisoners worked on farms down there. Picking cotton, peanuts


KAREN: So some of  the farmers would bring them in the house for lunch. They would drink with them


THOMAS SWEET: They were drunk.


KAREN: There’s some really funny stories of like


THOMAS SWEET: It was probably moonshine


KAREN: The prisoners getting drunk with the farmers and then they get in trouble because they come home late


THOMAS SWEET: [laughs]


KAREN: One of the biggest things that the war department says when they start sending the men out is like if you make friends with these POWs, it’s against the rules. But they do it all the time


ROBERT: Did anybody fall in love with anybody


KAREN: Oh yeah. I mean not a lot but it definitely happened. So as these prisoners are out in the community, they’re forming friendships, a few of them are falling in love, word starts to get out about how they’re being treated. And meanwhile across America there’s rationing. And so when they learn that the POWs are getting food that they might not be getting, a lot of the American public, they get pissed.


ARCHIVAL CLIP: Walter Winchell


KAREN: Especially this radio guy, Walter Winchell, who sort of made this his cause. They call him the Rush Limbaugh of World War II


JAD: Was he that well-known?


ROBERT: Walter Winchell was one of the most famous reporters in America


ARCHIVAL CLIP: Walter Winchell


KAREN: So in any case, when he finds out about the Nazi POW program, Walter Winchell just starts to rant about it


ARCHIVAL CLIP, WALTER WINCHELL: The United States Army caters to the Nazis as though they were kings. They get more food than our soldiers get. Ponies, radios, luxuries and all sorts of leniency beyond imagination.


KAREN: And he would do this week after week


ARCHIVAL CLIP, WALTER WINCHELL: We -- over here won’t have any Nazis to capture and fatten up on steaks on ham and bacon or chopped chicken liver--


KAREN: People start writing articles in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe. Citizens start flooding the war department with letters


ARCHIVAL CLIP, WALTER WINCHELL: I know sir that your YMCA war prisoners aid does all it can to make Nazi war prisoners over here comfortable


KAREN: And in the meantime, according to Thomas Sweet, inside the camp some of these prisoners are starting to get kind of bold


THOMAS SWEET: For a couple of nights they cut out swastikas and took a kite and was flying the kite and had these swastikas on the box underneath the kite with a string that down to the ground. And they handeed the string to one of the--one of guards and said, pull this string and when they pulled the string the trapdoor opened on the gadget they had made and all these swastikas started falling all over, all over the camp and in Aliceville too. And the townspeople started calling the base mad about that


KAREN: Add to that, we don’t have enough men to guard all these camps. So the prisoners are starting to get more and more control of the camp.


MAN: The prisoners had the run of the camp


KAREN: And in some cases the Nazi hardliners would start to torment the non Nazis. They would threaten them, they might beat them up. There were even a couple of murders.


ROBERT: Who was not a Nazi inside of these camps?


KAREN: If you had been drafted but you didn’t--you weren’t ideologically--




KAREN: So the perception that is coming out of these camps is that we’ve created these hotels on American soil where Nazis could start radicalizing. And people get so mad that there’s actually a congressional investigation into the coddling of prisoners of war. So I spent a lot of time at the National Archives trying to get to like, all right. What are the arguments. And here’s kind of how it went. You have this congressman on one side, Richard Harlice, and he’s saying you’re coddling them.


ARCHIVAL CLIP, WALTER WINCHELL: Congressman Harlice of Arizona called the Nazi prisoners of the United States pampered and privileged


KAREN: And on the other side you have the guy who’s now running the prisoner of war program, Archer Lurch, adn he’s basically saying, no


CLIP, LURCH: We do not coddle them


KAREN: He says, we’re just following the Geneva conventions. And the reason that he gave was the same reason that Joe Biden would give almost 60 years later


CLIP, JOE BIDEN: There’s a reason why we sign these treaties, to protect my son in the military


ROBERT: We torture them, they torture us


KAREN: Reciprocity


CLIP, JOE BIDEN: That’s why we have these treaties, so when Americans are captured they are not tortured. That’s the reason. In case anybody forgets it. That’s the reason


KAREN: One problem though. Just one month after that hearing in 1944


ARCHIVAL CLIP: Unarmed American prisoners fell to the machines of our enemies


KAREN: News breaks that 84 American soldiers, prisoners of war now in Germany are gunned down after they surrendered


ARCHIVAL CLIP: Four weeks later their frozen bodies, hands and ankles bound, were found where they fell


KAREN: We then go on to liberate American soldiers from POW camps in Germany and we find misery. Nothing like Aliceville


ARCHIVAL CLIP: American prisoners of war report inhuman hospital conditions


KAREN: Walter Winchell gets back on the airwaves




KAREN: He says look, reciprocity hasn’t worked. Our generosity


ARCHIVAL CLIP, WALTER WINCHELL: Has not been reciprocated and our boys were not treated the same

KAREN: And a few months later, things get even worse


ARCHIVAL CLIP: It was impossible to fully realize the horror of the Nazi concentration camps


KAREN: We start going into concentration camps

ARCHIVAL CLIPS: --the truth that man had indeed sunk below the level of animal beastiality


KAREN: And we start seeing what the German had done, what the Nazis had done


ARCHIVAL CLIP: Thousands of dead bodies were piled everywhere, most never having received the dignity of burial, but what was even more frightening were the living dead left behind


KAREN: So Congress decides to hold a second investigation into the treatment of prisoners. But this time it’s real soul searching. I mean, we had just seen the full horrors of the Holocaust so we’re thinking, anything we do to these guys at this point they deserve. And we’re also realizing we’re not really getting reciprocity so we don’t really have a practical reason to treat them well anymore. So at this point, the question has really become, do we continue to be good even when we’re not getting anything in return? And the kind of amazing thing to me is we decide, yeah. We’re gonna stick to the Geneva conventions. Archer Lurch who runs the POW program at this point, he gets up and he says, we are not going to lower ourselves to Nazi standards. We are not gonna let the enemy decide who we are as a country.


JAD: And that argument stuck?




ARNOLD KRAMER: I think that most people associated with the prison camp experience


KAREN: That’s historian Arnold Kramer again


ARNOLD KRAMER: Felt that we treated them well not because they treated ours well, but that we are decent people and probably would have done this anyway


ARCHIVAL CLIP: What makes an American is not any special precious sort of blood, but the tradition we have inherited. It’s tradition, not blood, that patterns the way we think and act and feel


DAVID GOLDFIELD: There’s a great belief that we have a special mission and we have a special history


KAREN: This is David Goldfield. He’s a historian at UNC Charlotte


DAVID GOLDFIELD: And that’s the ideal. But no. I mean, you only have to look at the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II


KAREN: He says, don’t forget, right as we’re giving the Nazis massive amounts of ham, we’re also rounding up tens of thousands of Japanese American citizens. Citizens. And we’re throwing them into these cramped camps that are way worse than Aliceville. And if you ask David why are we treating the Germans so much better


DAVID GOLDFIELD: They look like us.


ARCHIVAL CLIP: These people look all right. The mailman, the farmer. They all pretty much look like the folks back home.


DAVID GOLDFIELD: The major reason, race


KAREN: The Germans were white. They seemed familiar.


DAVID GOLDFIELD: There was a connection between the German POWs and the folks in the American South, not only because of the ethnicity of the Germans, not only because of their economic benefit to the region, but also because of their racial ideology. If you go to Nuremberg, there’s a museum there and you will see that the laws against the Jews were copied from the Mississippi black codes. And there are direct quotes from both the black codes and the Jewish codes


JAD: This is the most horrifying thing I’ve heard in a long time. I mean, is it really true that like all the niceness was just a perverse form of racism?


PAUL SPRINGER: Well I would say racism plays an enormous role in why Japanese citizens were interned in the first place. I don’t think there’s any question about that.


KAREN: That’s Paul Springer. He’s a military historian


PAUL SPRINGER: Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama


KAREN: He’s not quite sure that race explains all of this. He says, you know what, you’ve got to be careful because you’re comparing treatment of citizens to treatment of prisoners of war. And that’s different.


PAUL SPRINGER: It’s not a fair comparison. For the case of why you treat the German POWs better, well, because they’re prisoners of war. The Japanese POWs were also exceedingly well-treated. They were treated much better than the Japanese citizens of the United States and I think that’s the comparison that’s probably more interesting, is why did you treat enemy soldiers from Japan better than you treated citizens of the United States of Japanese heritage?


KAREN: And he says very simply that with prisoners of war, it’s because we had a rule


PAUL SPRINGER: Governing international law


KAREN: Like the Geneva conventions


PAUL SPRINGER: There’s no similar law at that time that says what you can and can’t do towards your civilian populations.


JAD: That’s interesting. So it’s like maybe we’re not racist or noble, but both. And it’s the rules that allow us to be our better selves.


KAREN: I mean, here’s what I take from this. I think that in a time of war it’s incredibly difficult to be good to your enemy. It’s not just about aspiring to be good, this American ideal, it’s about having 97 really nit-picky, tiny tedious rules to tell you exactly what you can do and what you can’t do. Because it would just be so easy to not be the person that you want to be in that moment.


JADD: It does kind of make you think back to February of 2002.


ARCHIVAL CLIP: Good afternoon. I have an announcement to make. President Bush today that the Geneva convention will apply to the Taliban detainees, but not to the Al-Qaeda international terrorists. The President has maintained the United States’ commitment to the principles of the Geneva convention while recognizing that the convention simply does not cover every situation in which people may be captured or detained by military forces, as we see in Afghanistan today. Yes John


ARCHIVAL CLIP: What you’re telling us is the Taliban prisoners, detainees, at Guantanamo will not get any more protections than they already are given under the Geneva convention. What you’re telling us is the Al-Qaeda detainees will get fewer.


ARCHIVAL CLIP: No. There’s no change in the protections they will be provided. They’re-- They’ve always been treated with the principles consistent with the Geneva convention, which means they’ll be treated well. If you’re looking for anything that will not happen as a result of this announcement is that they will not receive stipends from the American taxpayers. They will not receive musical instruments courtesy of the United States military. They would have received those had they been declared POWs. They will continue to be treated well because they’re in the custody of America.


ARCHIVAL CLIP: But the concern--the debate here was about if you don’t do it here, then US soldiers could be mistreated abroad, isn’t that correct? Isn’t that a big, a big motivation here--for the US soldiers get the same kind of treatment?


ARCHIVAL CLIP: It’s important for all nations, throughout the world, to treat any prisoners well. And that is something the United States always expects, and the United States always does. We have time for one more question and then there’s a-- Hold it. Go ahead. David.


ARCHIVAL CLIP: --US special forces. They don’t, they often do not wear uniforms, they often do not carry their weapons outwardly. If they are captured, they wouldn’t be prisoners of war?


ARCHIVAL CLIP: The terms of the Geneva convention apply to all. The terms speak for themselves. OK, thank you everybody.