My latest book, War, Spies, and Bobby Sox, comes out February 28th. (but it’s on preorder now… see below) It’s a trio of stories set during World War Two. One of the stories, P.O.W., took me down a rabbit hole of fascinating research into the era and our involvement in the conflict. So of course, I had to write about it.
Even if you know a great deal about the dark days when the whole of Europe and beyond was under the terrifying shadow of the Nazis, you may not know about this situation. I didn’t. The fact is that during 1943-1945 nearly half a million of German (and some Italian) WW2 POWs were imprisoned right here at home in the United States.
A half a million WW2 prisoners kept in the US
By 1943, the US was succeeding in the fight to vanquish the Axis, especially in North Africa. Rommel’s Army had been defeated, and many of the Wehrmacht soldiers were captured by the Americans. That presented a problem: where to incarcerate them? There weren’t adequate facilities in Europe, and transportation across Europe was problematic. The Army, which had responsibility for the POWs, decided to load them onto supply ships that had brought armaments and other equipment to Europe for the return journey to the US. Once the ships reached our shores, the prisoners were sent to camps all over the country. Only 4 states—Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, and Vermont—did not house any POWs within their borders. For example, there were half a dozen camps in Illinois, and one of them-
Skokie Valley– was less than five miles from my house!
The camps were refurbished CCC camps left over from the Depression, hastily built barracks, even abandoned Girl Scout camps. All together over 700 home-grown Branch Camps housed more than 425,000 prisoners of war.
Curiously, most of the prisoners were quite pleased to be incarcerated here. The Army made sure to follow the terms of the Geneva Convention to the letter, treating foreign prisoners the way they hoped American POWs would be treated by Germany. According to the Smithsonian,
Life in the camps was a vast improvement for many of the POWs who had grown up in “cold water flats” in Germany, according to former Fort Robinson, Nebraska, POW Hans Waecker, 88, who returned to the United States after the war and is now a retired physician in Georgetown, Maine. “Our treatment was excellent. Many POWs complained about being POWs—no girlfriends, no contact with family. But the food was excellent and clothing adequate.” Such diversions as sports, theater, chess games and books made life behind barbed wire a sort of “golden cage,” one prisoner remarked.
POWs didn’t just sit around. As you may know, there was an acute shortage of labor because so many American men were overseas, so POWs took their places at home, working on farms, in small factories, and even in manufacturing jobs. Take Nebraska, where around 12,000 prisoners of war were kept in camps. Many of them worked on the state’s roads. Others harvested hay or worked in the sugar beet fields. Some worked as hospital orderlies, Oddly, the prisoners included a lot of stone masons, who got involved with building structures for the locals. One man remembers them building a beautiful concrete garage which is, apparently, still standing.
In Northern Illinois, most of the prisoners worked on farms, and there are countless stories of men interacting well with Americans. Once the local people’s understandable worries had been put to rest – things like security and safety – they discovered that most Germans had no time for the Nazi Party and were grateful to be out of the war. In fact, experts believed less than 10% of them men were hard-core Nazi supporters. Add to that the fact that plenty of US citizens emigrated from Europe, including Germany, and you can understand why cordial relationships soon developed, even strong friendships and – ultimately, when peace came – love and marriage.
But there are always a few disgruntled personalities in every group, and there were cases of ‘true believers’ of the Nazi Party alongside the more tolerant Wehrmacht soldiers. This was a conflict no one anticipated, and in one or two instances, the actual murder of a German POW by an SS soldier occurred. The SS thought the soldiers were spying for the Americans. (Btw, you can imagine where this took me in the fictional part of the story). Even so, less than 1% made an attempt to escape, just 2,222 men. Most were caught almost immediately.
After the war ended some of the ex-prisoners returned to the States. A British friend tells me that an Italian POW held in North Yorkshire never left, staying put after the war and marrying a local girl. It happened on our side of the Atlantic too, contributing to the massive cultural melting pot that is the USA. According to history.net, one escaped German POW surrendered in 1985 so he could claim American citizenship and live legally in the US.
It’s curious… the fact that German POWs were scattered among Americans was not a secret, but it wasn’t broadcast either. To this day, thus, many Americans have no idea that over half a million Germans were here during the war.
As I said, I wrote about all of that —and more—in War, Spies and Bobby Sox, which is available for preorder now for only 99¢!* But buy it now. As of February 28, the price goes up to $4.99.
(Photos by James Meierhoff
University of Illinois at Chicago
“Chicago’s German POW Camps”)