It's recognition more than 70 years in the making.
Eight U.S. service members shot down and captured while fighting Hitler’s Nazi regime finally received long overdue Prisoner of War medals during a ceremony Wednesday at the Pentagon. For decades, the airmen were denied POW status, even though they crashed over Germany and were later held in a prison camp in Wauwilermoos, Switzerland. But after a grandson of one of the airmen fought a 15-year battle to show what they had gone through, including the daring escapes that allowed them to get back to the fight, the Pentagon reversed course.
USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III presented the medals to eight of the veterans and one of their grandsons during the ceremony. The Air Force authorized the awarding of the medal to 143 USAAF airmen last year following a change in criteria. Army Air Corps First Lieutenant James Mahon, 91, was among those honored, some 70 years after his imprisonment after he and the rest of his B-17 crew were captured.
"It’s the kind of courage we read about in books, that people make movies about," Welsh said of the valor shown by the airmen. "But make no mistake about it, these men have that type of courage … and boy, did these guys saddle up.”
Mahon, a longtime New Jersey resident who now lives in a New Hampshire nursing home, told the Courier-Post he was thrilled about the news earlier this month.
“Great! We were happy to be alive so we could come home,” Mahon told the newspaper.
Mahon said he would be accompanied to Wednesday’s ceremony with his son, Patrick, who saw his father’s decades-long fight with the Department of Defense denied because of Switzerland’s neutrality.
“The only difference between this camp and the German prison camps was that this one was easier to escape from,” Patrick Mahon told the newspaper.
The elder Mahon was a bombardier and a navigator when his plane crash-landed during a mission of the 429th Squadron, Second Bombardment Group from Italy to Germany. Mahon, according to military reports, made two attempts to escape Switzerland but was caught and imprisoned. On Dec. 29, 1944, Mahon, using a forged pass, escaped again and managed to reach Zurich, where he contacted American consul officials. He was later escorted to the French border by a guide whom he then traveled to Italy with in early 1945.
Lt. Col. Maureen Schumann, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon, has said Mahon and other Swiss prisoners did not meet the criteria for the POW Medal until last year when Congress approved the National Defense Authorization Act, which revised the U.S. law on POW first created in 1985.
The Air Force approved the medals following a tireless, 15-year fight by one of the imprisoned aviators' grandsons: Army Maj. Dwight Mears, an assistant professor of history at West Point, Iraq war veteran and the grandson of Lt. George Mears, a B-17 pilot who died in 1972.
"It's a little surreal," Maj. Mears said after Wednesday's ceremony. "I've been working on this for over a decade. I wasn't willing to bank on this happening; I hope it provides closure."
One of the recipients, Technical Sgt. Alva Moss, told the Chicago Tribune he was contacted about five years ago by Dwight Mears, who discovered that the captives were essentially denied POW status by the Veterans Administration because they were held by nonenemies during war, although the agency would consider captives POWs if they were held in such conditions during peacetime.
"Without him, there wouldn't have been anything done," Moss told the newspaper of Mears.
Still, Moss was apparently a skeptic.
"I'll believe it when I see it," he said last year.
Fox News' Jennifer Griffin, Nick Kalman, Anne Marie Riha and Joshua Rhett Miller contributed to this report.