American POWs of World War II: Forgotten Men Tell Their Stories

By Tom Bird | Go to book overview

Appendix A: A Perspective on Former Prisoners of War for the 1990s

Charles A. Stenger

During the four major wars of the twentieth century, approximately 142,000 Americans fell into enemy hands. They invariably faced months and years of brutal, inhumane treatment and starvation. Despite this, some 125,000 survived, were returned to U.S. military control, and subsequently to civilian life. Although it was anticipated that these special veterans would have enduring physical and psychological problems as a consequence of these experiences, there was little definitive planning by either the military services or the Veterans Administration. These POWs simply became an invisible part of the far larger total veteran population. Accustomed by captive experience to passively accept the necessity of living with an array of physical and psychological problems, most POWs adjusted to these circumstances without complaint or demand for additional services.

Public awareness of the extremely adverse conditions under which Americans were being held during the Vietnam War brought renewed attention to this issue. Both the military services and Veterans Administration took fresh looks as past efforts, recognized inadequacies, and sought to do a better job with their newest group of POWs. For the VA, this review process brought to the surface continuing deficiencies in services to the far larger populations of POWs from World War II and Korea.

Congress, too, recognized this fact and, in 1978, directed the VA to carry out an extensive study of residual health and adjustment problems of World War II and Korean POWs. By 1980, the VA completed its detailed and comprehensive report, which was excellent in every respect.

In 1981, Congress responded by enacting PL 97-37. This landmark legislation opened up the VA health-care system to all POWs and added

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