UNION GROVE -- Dale Ellington was a prisoner of war during World War II, but for almost seven decades the U.S. military didn't consider him a POW.
It was a long time to wait, but judging by the smile as bright as the shiny Prisoner of War Medal pinned to his black fleece jacket on Sunday at the Veterans Home at Union Grove, Ellington was thankful for the belated recognition.
"It's about time," said Ellington, 91.
Ellington was on his fifth mission as a waist gunner on a B-17 crew when the bomber was hit by German anti-aircraft flak on April 13, 1944. With the plane's fuel tanks damaged and control cables severed, the crew couldn't make it back to the home base in England, so the pilot turned toward neutral Switzerland.
Because Switzerland was not an enemy combatant, downed allied airmen such as Ellington were housed in resort towns far from the country's borders. Switzerland was obligated to detain Allied troops, while soldiers and airmen were obligated to escape to return to their units.
Which is exactly what Ellington did.
When he heard American forces were close to the French-Swiss border, Ellington walked away from the remote town in the Alps where he had been detained for five months. Dressed in civilian clothing, he got as far as what he thought was the French border. But an alert Swiss soldier arrested him.
Because he tried to escape, Ellington was now considered a common criminal under Swiss law, which deemed him a foreigner who committed a crime under military jurisdiction -- of trying to return to his bomber unit. That meant Ellington was not considered a prisoner of war because the Swiss government during World War II did not afford internees the protections of the 1929 Geneva Convention for humane treatment of POWs, said Maj. Dwight Mears, a history professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Ellington was sentenced to serve 75 days at Wauwilermoos prison, whose commandant was a Nazi sympathizer later convicted of war crimes for the horrible treatment of prisoners like Ellington.
"It was terrible. We had one bath in five weeks," recalled Ellington, who graduated from South Division High School in 1940 and worked as a mail clerk at The Milwaukee Journal before joining the Army Air Force.
Prisoners slept on lice-infested straw in poorly heated barracks. Latrines were filthy slit trenches. Skin boils, lice and dysentery affected most of the prisoners because no soap or warm water was provided for hygiene, according to War Crimes Office reports. And many of the prisoners lost weight from the skimpy food portions. Ellington said he lost 30 pounds.
Ironically, Ellington and other American troops probably would have gotten better treatment in German POW camps run by the Luftwaffe, said Mears, whose grandfather was one of 161 downed U.S. airmen imprisoned at Wauwilermoos.
When the number of Americans sentenced to Wauwilermoos began growing, the U.S. government asked the Swiss repeatedly to release them or treat them more humanely, but initially Switzerland refused. But by December 1944, Swiss authorities relented and released Ellington and other American troops to heavily fortified hotels.
Shortly after that, Ellington managed to escape Switzerland and return to his Army Air Force unit. When he came home to Wisconsin, he testified about his treatment for a war crimes tribunal.
And then he got on with his life.
He married his wife, Rose, in July 1945. They were classmates at South Division High School, and she had read in the newspaper that he was missing in action, assuming that meant he was killed. So she was startled to see him walking on a downtown Milwaukee street. Rose called out to him. They chatted. Three months later they got married.
They raised two sons. Dale sold printing presses, bought and ran a motel and later opened an office supply store, D.C. Ellington Co.
Like many World War II veterans, he didn't talk much about his experience and rarely spoke about Wauwilermoos prison.
"When he came back he was sworn to secrecy. I would ask him and he would say, 'The war is over, I'm done with it.' He never applied for POW benefits," said Rose Ellington.
Mears didn't think it was right that American prisoners of Wauwilermoos were not eligible to get POW benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs or to receive the POW Medal. So he worked through military channels and Congress, and after a decade of effort, the government decided this year that Wauwilermoos prisoners deserved the POW Medal. Only 12 of the 161 American prisoners of Wauwilermoos are still alive.
And so on Sunday afternoon at the Veterans Home in Union Grove where Ellington lives, a ceremony was held for an American patriot who wanted to return to the war so much that he tried to escape twice. When he was wheeled into the dining room filled with family, friends and fellow veterans, everyone stood. Ellington returned salutes from the New Berlin VFW honor guard.
A flutist played the national anthem, Dave Chappell, a Vietnam veteran and friend of Ellington's, read a short summary of Ellington's war record, and a chocolate cake adorned with an American flag and "Congratulations Dale!" was sliced.
Wearing a U.S. Army Air Corps hat, Ellington cried as his tearful wife pinned on his POW Medal.
Looking at the well-wishers, Ellington said simply: Thank you.