Civilian POWs Seek Recognition, Aid : History: An estimated 5,000 Americans survived prison camps in World War II.
Gil Hair remembers little of the three years he spent in a Japanese prisoner of war camp--and no wonder.
Hair was less than a year old when he was imprisoned.
The Hairs, caught up in World War II when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, were among thousands of American civilians who were interned by the Japanese and Germans.
They represent little more than a historical footnote. But Hair has a lifetime legacy of spinal and muscular ailments caused by severe malnutrition, and his 79-year-old mother still has nightmares from the experience.
An estimated 5,000 Americans who endured often brutal conditions in those camps are still alive.
Amid the fanfare over the 50th anniversary of World War II’s epic battles, they have been quietly lobbying Congress for help in paying for ongoing treatment of ailments traceable to their incarceration.
They want the government to remember the toll the war took on people who never were in uniform, but who were mistreated solely because they were U.S. citizens in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“The American public is simply unaware that any civilians were held during World War II,” said Hair.
His family had lived for years in the Philippines, then a U.S. territory, where they operated an import business. Authorities had assured his parents and other Americans they were not in danger, according to Hair.
“We had our homes, our cars, our lives there. We lost it all. We weren’t just visiting,” said Hair, of Miami.
Dr. Jay Hill is another survivor of a POW camp in the Philippines. Hill was 16 when he and his family were interned. After he was released in 1945 and went to live with relatives in California, he received a draft notice.
“They said 37 months in a POW camp didn’t qualify as military service,” said Hill, a dentist now of Albuquerque, N.M., who has also suffered from malnutrition-related ailments.
Michael Kolanik’s father, Michael Sr., had gone to work his family farm in Poland in 1931 and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1939. The Germans noted he had been born in Pittsburgh, but declared him a stateless person and held him in a POW camp for six years.
When he returned to the United States, he was rejected from the military because of camp-related ailments.
After he died in 1992, his son was unable to get a flag for his funeral from the government or any official acknowledgment of his sacrifice.
“If you’re an American citizen when war breaks out, don’t think that will help you,” said Kolanik, of Yonkers.
He is working with the Center for Civilian Internee Rights, a group founded in 1991 to try to get more help for surviving internees.
Although the 1948 War Claims Act did provide limited compensation for those held by the Japanese--$1 for each day in captivity for adults, 50 cents a day for children--those held by the Germans received nothing.
The Japanese had held about 14,000 Americans (half of them in the Philippines) and the Germans interned about 5,000, according to the center.
The 1948 act also provided medical benefits for those held by the Japanese, but capped the benefits at $25 a week, an amount derived by taking 66% of the national average weekly wage of 1948, according to the office of Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.).
Last year, Green sponsored a bill that would have provided benefits for those held during World War II, as well as for 33 American civilians detained in Korea and 28 more detained in Vietnam.
The legislation also would have made it easier to get benefits, eliminating extensive documentation that the civilian POWS had to provide to get benefits. It would have extended civilian POWs the same “presumptive” conditions used by the Veterans Administration to evaluate claims filed by former military POWs, including treatment for psychiatric problems.
The estimated cost over five years was under $1 million a year.
The bill died in committee, but Green said he intends to reintroduce it in this Congress.
“It takes time to understand the difference between civilian POWs and military POWs. There’s an educational process. People just don’t know what civilian prisoners of war are,” said Green.
“The trouble is,” said Hill, “there’s not a significant number of us. It’s a matter of conscience now. We just don’t have the political clout to get it through.”