Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Escape and Evasion (E&E)

Efforts of uniformed military personnel to return to friendly forces after being captured by the enemy or to avoid capture when isolated in enemy-controlled territory. The Geneva Convention defined an evader as an uncaptured military member, isolated in enemy territory, trying to find his way back to friendly control. Under the convention, he was a legal combatant, subject to being interned by a neutral country for the war's duration; an escapee who had been captured, had escaped, and had then evaded was regarded as a noncombatant who could be returned home.

Escape and evasion (E&E) and related activities became a major focus of British and then American intelligence organizations early in the war. Escaped prisoners of war (POWs) and returned evaders could serve as intelligence assets, morale boosters for friendly forces, and a nuisance to the enemy, who would have to divert troops from normal duties to look for them. The British MI-9, established in 1939, and the American MIS-X, begun in 1942, each supported essentially the same E&E-related mission.

Both Allied units functioned in strict secrecy while providing training and E&E kits for servicemen whose missions made them particularly susceptible to capture. MI-9 and MIS-X were also involved in interrogating enemy POWs and arranging and maintaining clandestine networks of agents in Axis-occupied territory to assist evaders in reaching home. They built an impressive array of covert devices designed to help with E&E, including compasses built into uniform buttons, hacksaws hidden in shoelaces, and clandestine radios concealed in baseballs.

The Allied covert E&E networks in Europe and the Far East eventually assisted in returning to Allied control more than 35,000 officers and enlisted men who might otherwise have spent the remainder of the war behind barbed wire or never returned at all. By 1944, MI-9 ran four different escape lines in France alone, returning hundreds of Allied aircrews at tremendous cost to the French Resistance. Similarly, American agents in China organized "safe areas" in extremely difficult terrain, despite Japanese occupation. Official efforts notwithstanding, an escapee's initiative and courage and simple luck all played important roles.

One of the most famous escapes of the war was that organized by the prisoner escape committee in Germany's Stalag Luft III at Sagan, Poland. In this "Great Escape," 76 Allied POWs escaped in one night. Adolf Hitler later ordered 50 of the recaptured POWs shot. However, despite terrible circumstances, many POWs considered it their duty to escape and continued trying to do so throughout the war.

World War II E&E laid the groundwork for current Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) programs in the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), designed to help future escapees and evaders "return with honor."

Jeffrey W. Stamp


Further Reading
Brickhill, Paul. The Great Escape. New York: W. W. Norton, 1950.; Chancellor, Henry. Colditz. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.; Foot, M. R. D., and J. M. Langley. MI 9: Escape and Evasion, 1939–1945. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.; Ottis, Sherri Greene. Silent Heroes: Downed Airmen and the French Underground. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2001.; Shoemaker, Lloyd R. The Escape Factory. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.; Wichtrich, A. R. MIS-X Top Secret. Raleigh, NC: Pentland Press, 1997.
 

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