Why one Maine man is grateful for prisoner swaps: The Germans had his parents

While Tyler H. Thompson was enjoying his childhood and attending a one-room school house in Hancock, far away, Europe was at war, with his parents in the middle of it. His father, an American diplomat, and his mother were being held prisoner in Baden-Baden, Germany, with more than 150 others, including embassy personnel and their families, members of the U.S. media, Quakers, Mennonites and Red Cross workers.

It was World War II, and Thompson, now 79 and living in Hancock — the same town where his parents met — was too young to fully understand what was happening. His grandparents, Merle and Louise, were taking care of him and his younger sister. His grandparents received occasional letters from Germany, but Thompson doesn’t remember them sharing many details about his parents, Tyler and Ruth Thompson.

“I was in the first, second, third grade. I knew they weren’t there, that they were in Germany, and that’s all I really understood,” he said this week.

BANGOR, MAINE -- 06/10/2014 -- Tyler H. Thompson tells the story of his father, a diplomat, and mother who were taken prisoner by Germans during World War ll. Brian Feulner| BDN

BANGOR, MAINE — 06/10/2014 — Tyler H. Thompson tells the story of his father, a diplomat, and mother who were taken prisoner by Germans during World War ll. Brian Feulner| BDN

I got in touch with Thompson after he submitted a letter to the editor about his parents being arrested and interned by the Nazis. They, along with the 152 others, eventually returned home through a prisoner exchange with the Germans. In his letter, Thompson expressed gratitude the exchange happened, hoping to provide a little local and personal perspective on a topic drawing plenty of news coverage lately: President Barack Obama’s decision to exchange Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Thompson didn’t want to get into the politics of that ordeal — in which congressional Republicans claim Obama broke the law by not informing Congress before the swap, and Obama argues he had limited time, didn’t want a leak to destroy the deal and acted within his constitutional powers to protect American servicemembers.

Instead, Thompson wanted to express a simple point: “Never let anybody be left behind — be it a diplomat or military — in the service of the United States.”

Prisoner swaps are nothing new, and each instance is different. Sometimes a prisoner exchange is not a smart move for national security reasons, as Thompson’s family learned.

Thompson’s father received his first appointment by President Herbert Hoover in 1931 to serve as vice consul to Cherbourg, France. It was a small consular post, and the salary was only $2,500 — not even enough to rent an apartment with a bathtub. He later worked in Marseilles, France, and then moved to Paris in 1937 to serve as vice consul and secretary of the American embassy.

On June 14, 1940, Thompson’s father watched the Germans march into Paris to occupy the city. At the time, his mother had returned to the U.S. to give birth to his sister. Later, in March 1941, she rejoined her husband in Paris under German occupation, leaving their children with her husband’s parents in the U.S. She thought she would only be in Paris a short while.

That summer, however, the Germans forced Thompson’s parents to leave Paris. They ended up moving to Vichy, France, which was the capital of unoccupied France and a kind of “free zone,” governed by a puppet regime, under an armistice agreement. In November 1942, however, the Germans broke that agreement and took over Vichy when Allied forces arrived in North Africa to push north.

While others with them were taken to be interned — supposedly prior to repatriation — the Thompsons stayed in Vichy to prepare the U.S. embassy to be turned over to the neutral Swiss. One afternoon, German soldiers came and threatened Tyler Thompson. One pointed a gun at his stomach and asked him to open all the safes in the building.

Even though there was nothing of value left and nothing confidential, Thompson refused to give in. According to one of his public accounts, “I was obstinate, and I said that I wouldn’t open them. I didn’t like them waving that Tommy gun at me.”

Eventually the Germans did take over the building, and Tyler and Ruth were sent to join the internment group in Lourdes, France. At a stop along the way, an officer told him someone wanted to talk with him. It was a princess, Gladys de Polignac, whose family owned one of the largest newspapers in Paris.

Thompson never found out how she knew he was on that particular train, but she wanted to help by giving him something he would need “more than anything” in internment: toilet paper.

While the Thompsons were in Lourdes, the Germans tried to strike a deal with the Allied forces. They would exchange them for 35 German spies. The United States said no. The agents would have been too valuable to the Germans. So the Germans said if the U.S. didn’t want to pursue the exchange, they would take their war prisoners to Germany.

That’s how the Thompsons ended up prisoners at a hotel in Baden-Baden, Germany, with 152 others. They weren’t allowed to leave the hotel grounds unless they were with a Gestapo guard. If anyone had a toothache, they waited until multiple people had toothaches to see a dentist.

At first, all they ate was black bread, cabbage and potatoes, though eventually they received occasional prisoner of war food packages.

Everyone thought they would be there a short time, as was standard procedure following a breach in relations. Along with the Thompsons were Quakers and Mennonites who had been doing refugee work. There were also reporters from the Associated Press, the United Press, The New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, along with several photographers.

But the Germans wanted to use them as hostages.

Their total internment lasted from November 1942 to February 1944. In that time, the group waited. They tried to pass their time by forming a “university,” organized by Phil Whitcomb of the Baltimore Sun. They learned different languages. There were also 18 children under the age of 18, so Ruth helped organize schooling for them. One child was born at the hotel.

The group was far luckier than other prisoners of war during World War II. They had regular food and were allowed to go for occasional walks if a Gestapo guard went with them. But they were not free, and they worried about what would happen to them if Germany found itself cornered.

Finally, in 1944, they were allowed to leave in a prisoner exchange deal struck with the Germans. They came home on the S.S. Gripsholm, a ship that made several such trips to bring prisoners back to their countries of origin.

“No one went crazy — no more than they were when they came, anyway. When we were being exchanged, we thought when we arrived in Lisbon that we all had stood internment very well, and we were proud of ourselves. Later, someone told me he had never seen such a bunch of zombies! I guess our condition may have been less healthy than we thought,” Tyler Thompson told the Ellsworth American in January 1985.

When he returned home, he met his 4-year-old daughter Mardi for the first time. The family later returned to Paris — after the Germans left but before Victory Day — so Tyler Thompson could restart the American embassy there. His son remembers watching American bombers flying over Paris to bomb Germany.

“The American soldiers in Paris were absolutely thrilled to be able to talk with an American kid,” the younger Tyler Thompson said, describing how they were showered with candy bars and comic books.

His father went on to serve in Algeria, again in France, then Prague and Ottawa, Canada. He became director general of the Foreign Service in the State Department, then ambassador to Iceland and, finally, ambassador to Finland. He remained in the Foreign Service a total of 38 years.

The younger Tyler Thompson went to college and later joined the Navy, retiring in 1977 as a lieutenant commander. He then started what became Bangor Business and Tax Services.

Looking back on the time his parents were prisoners, he said he doesn’t remember a lot of hype or commotion about the ordeal. When his parents were released, he just remembers his grandparents telling him they were coming home. From a child’s perspective, that was all he expected.

BANGOR, MAINE -- 06/10/2014 -- Tyler H. Thompson tells the story of his father, a diplomat, and mother who were taken prisoner by Germans during World War ll. Brian Feulner| BDN

BANGOR, MAINE — 06/10/2014 — Tyler H. Thompson tells the story of his father, a diplomat, and mother who were taken prisoner by Germans during World War ll. Brian Feulner| BDN

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.