Ever since March and April 1944, during the height of the American Air Forces’ tremendous battle with the Luftwaffe, U.S. Army Air Forces commander General Henry “Hap” Arnold had been fuming about the number of American landings in neutral countries, which struck him as suspiciously high. When he received reports that in July 1944 alone, 45 American bombers and one Mustang fighter had found refuge in Switzerland, he sent a steaming message to Lieutenant General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe. Arnold claimed he had substantial evidence that large numbers of American bombers had landed in neutral countries “without indication of serious battle damage or mechanical failure, or shortage of fuel.”
There was also, he charged, confirmation from American diplomatic personnel in Sweden who had interviewed interned crews that “the landings were intentional evasions of further combat service.”
It took a lot to unhinge even-tempered Tooey Spaatz, but this letter did it. In language that bordered on insubordination, he told Arnold that both he and Ira Eaker, head of Allied air operations in the Mediterranean theater, “resent the implication that these crews are cowards, are low in morale or lack the will to fight. Such is a base slander against the most courageous group of fighting men in this war.”
Arnold’s suspicions were based on a single letter from the American consul in Göteborg, Sweden, William W. Corcoran, a notoriously erratic man. Corcoran accused American airmen interned in that country of “a complete lack of patriotism” and an eagerness to avoid additional military service “by any means possible.” Other sources—albeit highly unofficial and, in some cases, highly questionable—seemed to support Arnold’s concerns. The Nazi radio propagandist William Joyce—known to British listeners as “Lord Haw-Haw”—claimed that American bomber boys were landing in Sweden and Switzerland with their golf clubs and skis. In August 1944, Collier’s magazine ran a lavish photo spread showing beaming American flyboys skiing, biking and drinking champagne at Stockholm nightspots with ravishing Swedish blondes.
Arnold worried that the spate of landings in neutral countries reflected a dangerous deterioration in crew morale brought on by fatigue and heavy losses. Even before he had written Spaatz, Arnold had set in motion three independent investigations: two of them to interview interned crews and examine American aircraft being held by the Swedes and the Swiss; the other, conducted by a member of headquarters staff, to study combat crew morale in the entire European Theater of Operations. But Arnold received a communiqué in late August from Brig. Gen. Barnwell Rhett Legge, the military attaché at the U.S. legation in Bern, that should have tipped him off about the real situation in Switzerland. Legge claimed that he was having problems trying to dissuade the very airmen Arnold accused of trying to sit out the war in Switzerland from escaping in droves from their “benevolent hosts,” and returning, at great personal risk, to England with the help of the French underground.
Postwar records confirm Legge’s observations. Of the 1,740 American airmen held in Switzerland during the war, a number that includes both “internees” (1,516 of them) and evaders who landed in enemy territory and found their way into Switzerland, 947 tried to escape, some of them two or three times.
By comparison, approximately 1,400 American bomber boys were interned in Sweden, and although there are no official numbers, very few tried to escape. That’s because the Swedish government was under heavy diplomatic pressure from the United States for selling iron to Germany and hence hastened the repatriation of American fliers, which eliminated any need for the men to risk escape. And when a few impatient fliers did try to flee the country, Swedish officials, fearing American economic sanctions, were reluctant to stop them.
Arnold’s investigations concluded that there was no evidence of a morale crisis and that William Corcoran had probably been “misled by the nonchalance and contempt for heroics displayed by most American airmen.” What seems to have finally satisfied Arnold was a report from Allen Dulles, head of the Office of Strategic Services in Central Europe, with headquarters in Bern. Dulles, who used Switzerland as the base for his extensive spying operations, indicated that neither he nor American military officials in Switzerland who examined the condition of every American plane that landed there had found any evidence of airmen trying to evade combat. “I believe this is nothing but ill-willed propaganda inspired by Nazis,” Dulles concluded.
After the war, Spaatz, still in a slow burn over Arnold’s accusations, ordered American repair teams to conduct a close inspection of bombers that had landed in Switzerland and were being prepared for return to the Air Forces. The report concluded that with the exception of only one or two planes, every American bomber that came down in Switzerland had been either heavily damaged in combat or dangerously low on fuel.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.