BEDFORD – On Aug. 3, 1944, 2nd Lt. James F. Mahon was on his 15th mission with the Army Air Corps when his plane was damaged by enemy fire and the crew had to make a crash landing in Switzerland.
He was slightly injured in the crash and was imprisoned in a hotel in Davos, Switzerland. Although he was allowed to receive his paycheck and move around the town, he had a curfew. He scouted the area and planned his escape, was captured and escaped again. He was then put in the prison camp at Wauwilermoos, which was commanded by a pro-Nazi Swiss officer.
Mahon was determined to gain his freedom and return to his unit in Italy. After five months of poor treatment, he escaped from Wauwilermoos. With a forged pass, he was aided from Zurich and across the Alps into France in January, 1945.
Mahon, 91, who lives at the Bedford Falls assisted-living facility, will be one of eight surviving soldiers to receive the Prisoner of War Medal on April 30 at the Pentagon. The medal was authorized by Congress to anyone who served honorably as a prisoner of war after April 5, 1917.
However, because of Switzerland's neutrality during the war, the soldiers' POW status and eligibility to receive the medal was delayed until recently.
"I feel very fortunate," said Mahon.
Mahon's son, Patrick, said his father never talked much about his incarceration and escapes, but he has heard stories that his father hid in a church, dressed up as a woman to hide, wore eight scarves to stay warm and was part of an organized network that helped escapees.
"He gave seven of the scarfs away to other escapees," said Patrick Mahon. "He was offered the Purple Heart but said he didn't want it because others were hurt more."
Mahon will be accompanied to the Washington, D.C. ceremony by 20 family members, including his four sons, Patrick, John, Joseph and James Jr.; most of his 14 grandchildren, and three of his four great-grand children.
Mahon grew up in Jersey City, N.J. He had completed three years of his physics and math major at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, when he joined the Army Air Corps.
He finished his training at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, on April 7, 1944. He was assigned as a navigator and bombardier to the 429th Squadron of the 2nd Bombardment Group, operating from Amendola Air Base in Foggia, Italy.
After his successful escape from Wauwilermoos, he was sent to pilot training school but the war ended before he earned his wings. He decided to leave the military and raised a family with his wife, Mary.
The couple had been married 59 years until her death in 2009.
He had worked at Public Service Electric and Gas in New Jersey.
"He was hired because of his background in electrical engineering and ended up in the commercial development division," said Patrick Mahon.
As a navigator, Mahon logged 400 flying hours, with 90 hours in combat. He earned the Air Medal, and the European/African/Middle East ribbon with six battle stars before he was honorably discharged on Oct. 16, 1945.
Mahon's experience is noted in the book "The Second Was the First," by Charles W. Richards, about missing air crews and escape narratives of the men of the 2nd Bombardment Group.