SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - A group of imprisoned World War II airmen is finally getting the recognition it deserves, thanks in part to a local veteran who helped make it happen.
While 93-year-old Robert Cardenas was not a prisoner of war himself, the San Diego man did play a key role in fighting for the recognition of his fellow airmen.
Those men, although not imprisoned in enemy territory, were subjected to POW conditions, as the U.S. military is now honoring nearly 70 years later.
Retired Brigadier General Robert Cardenas was captain of the 44th Bomb group in 1944 during WWII, when the B-24 he was piloting was shot down by German enemy anti-aircraft fire.
Cardenas managed to parachute to safety, but was ultimately held in an internment camp in Switzerland. He was one of about 1500 U.S. airmen who ended up in Switzerland during the war.
For those who attempted to escape internment and were caught, they were sent to a Swiss military prison camp known as Wauwilermoos, run by a known Nazi sympathizer.
"He was a Nazi, not only a Nazi sympathizer," Cardenas told CBS News 8.
While Cardenas himself was never sent to Wauwilermoos, he did have a chance to visit it and witness its abysmal conditions firsthand.
"The beds were wooden planks or some of them were only straw on the floor," he recalled.
American prisoners there were subjected to physical and sexual abuse, starvation, freezing, disease-ridden conditions and virtually no hygiene facilities, according to U.S. airmen who were held there before the defeat of the Axis powers.
"It was exactly like, if not worse than any POW camp in Germany," Cardenas said. "It was horrible."
Because the more than 160 airmen who ended up in Wauwilermoos were not imprisoned in enemy territory, they were not recognized as Prisoners of War: until the grandson of one of those men, Army Major Dwight Mears, began to fight 15 years ago to try to set the record straight.
Mears enlisted Cardenas' assistance to petition military leaders to grant these men the recognition they deserved, almost seven decades later.
"Our own people suffered the same thing as the ones who had been in Vietnam and the Stalag, and I thought they should receive the medal," Cardenas said.
In September, those 160 airmen imprisoned at Wauwilermoos were finally honored as prisoners-of-war. Only twelve of them are still alive.
As for Cardenas, he plans to return to Switzerland next summer, at the invitation of the Swiss military, to re-visit the site where his B-24 crashed.