SPRINGFIELD, Ill. Marion Oltman spent the last eight months of World War II in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, and tears still fill his eyes when he recalls those desperate days.
After working all day to fill craters left from Allied bombing, each prisoner got a boiled potato and a slice of bread with sawdust used as filler. Oltman was given the task of slicing the bread to feed 12 men.
"You don't know what it's like to look in the eyes of guys that are that hungry," the 89-year-old Pekin, Ill., resident said, his voice breaking.
The experience gave Oltman a unique perspective about the treatment of prisoners during wartime. As a national debate continues about the role of torture to get information from suspects in the war on terror, Oltman and others attending an ex-POW conference said that the United States should set an example for the world in the humane treatment of detainees.
"I don't believe in torture," Oltman said this past week at the 60th annual conference of the American Ex-Prisoners of War. "I've seen what humans can do to humans. I've lived through some of it. And that's not right."
But what constitutes humane treatment is less clear and even those who have been in the hands of the enemy themselves don't always agree. While they say they wouldn't kill or physically harm a detainee, many struggle with the question in a world where it appears terrorists have changed the rules.
Ex-POWs, having faced life-or-death struggles in strange lands, are conflicted men. They believe in American ideals of justice and mercy but know the lonely desperation of facing a hostile and armed opponent.
Oltman and the other former POWs would not criticize the Bush administration directly, saying they didn't know enough about U.S. tactics.
Elmer Morris lost his right arm and eye to German tank fire and his feet to frostbite. The 84-year-old Oklahoman said he has tried to lead a moral life since beseeching God for protection upon awakening in Nazi hands with a gangrenous arm and his feet turning black.
Morris flatly denounced torture, then stopped and said, "Take all that back." He would condone "a certain amount" of rough treatment, such as solitary confinement.
"Americans try to set an example to all the nations, and in setting that example, we need to treat the enemy right and be good in that respect, not mistreat them," Morris said.
Congress has prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terror suspects.Lawmakers have said that includes simulated drowning known as waterboarding.
The Bush administration has refused to say whether waterboarding is among the interrogation techniques prohibited in an executive order last summer.
A half a world away from the Nazi fight, Buck Turner served on the burial detail, helping carry as many as 40 bodies a day to mass graves at the infamous Japanese Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines.
Malnourished, forced to beat one another and assigned to 10-man "shooting squads" that meant death for nine men if one escaped, Turner has a different view.
He doesn't want detainees killed or bones broken, but "if we can put a little pain on one of them and get the information that we need that maybe might save lives, we need to do that."
"Most people don't feel like that," says Turner, 86, of Big Spring, Texas. "But most people haven't been there either and seen what those other people can do to you and do to your friends."
Pete Wiese, an 83-year-old Washington, Ill., resident, was captured in Italy in 1944 and liberated just weeks before V-E Day. He and the 17 other Americans forced to work on a German farm were so confident of the way their country treated prisoners, they told their guard headed back to combat to surrender.
"Never in any other fighting have Americans treated any prisoners other than like they were their own people," said Wiese, who dismisses media reports about current U.S. policy as "propaganda."
Howard Ray, who was 19 and two weeks in Korea in 1950 when he was captured and held for a week by North Korean forces, was appalled by the mistreatment at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in November 2003.
But he dismisses questions about the current situation; it's "something we don't know anything about."
"Does the end justify the means? I don't know," said Ray, 75, of San Antonio. "Can I say that I wouldn't do it? I don't know. It would depend on the situation at the time."