WWII POWs

German World War II POWs board a train in Boston, heading for POW camps throughout the United States; 300 POWs were housed at Fort Oglethorpe. Author Jason Wetzel will be in Fort Oglethorpe Feb. 24 seeking information from local citizens. (Photo courtesy of Jason Wetzel)

The early days of November 1943, 75 years ago, marked the virtual midpoint of America's involvement in the fighting of World War II.  The tide had slowly turned, in Europe and in the Pacific, but almost two full years of deadly conflict still loomed ahead.  While young Americans were continuing to fight and die on the Italian peninsula, in the skies over Europe, across the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, in the steamy equatorial jungles of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and even along the frozen coastal areas of Alaska, the war was already over tens of thousands of enemy combatants.  In the days just prior to Thanksgiving, some 170,000 Axis soldiers and sailors, now prisoners of war (POWs), were safely residing on, of all places, U.S. soil.

Enemy POWs pour into America

The story of enemy POWs in the United States during the Second World War is a largely forgotten chapter of recent American history.  By war's end their numbers had swelled to over 425,000.  While most were Germans, there were also just over 50,000 Italians and some 5,000 Japanese.  They were interned in roughly 700 camps and branch camps spread over 46 states, including several in Georgia. 

Most of the facilities, for obvious reasons, were not located near urban or industrial areas, but in more rural settings.  While the U.S. government officially set out to maintain a "media blackout" regarding the camps and their inhabitants, the American people quickly became aware of what was going on.  Grieved by daily American casualty lists from overseas, a few outraged citizens demanded the immediate execution of the POWs.  Most, however, were more benevolent.  In fact, a 1943 poll indicated that 74 percent of all Americans believed that the German government, not the German people, was responsible for the war.

Ultimately almost half a million men, individuals who had previously been engaged in killing American and other Allied soldiers, now resided all across the nation.  Security was of paramount concern.  Amazingly, only 2,222 POWs attempted to escape.  Most of these were easily rounded up within days.  All were eventually accounted for.  This number represents only half of one percent of all POWs, less than the percentage of those trying to escape from regular civilian prisons in the United States at the time.

No attempts to sabotage American infrastructure or to kill civilians were ever recorded.  If a man was identified as an ardent Nazi sympathizer, which the vast majority was not, he was typically shipped out to one of a handful of camps with much tighter security.  This was done both to isolate the Nazi zealot and to protect other Germans, whom he might view as fraternizing with the enemy, from his sometimes murderous reprisals.

Most Axis POWs quickly realized that they were in a much better place in an American POW camp than they were in continuing to fight the losing battle to spread fascist tyranny.  Not only would they be spared from the very real possibility of death in battle, but they would now be well cared for by their American captors. 

In keeping with the stipulations of the 1929 Geneva Conventions, treaties governing the conduct of war which the U.S. had signed, the POWs were given adequate, barracks-like housing and ample meals.  After the war, one German internee told of how he gained 57 pounds during his first two years as a POW.  Needless to say, some Americans felt that the prisoners were treated much too well.

POWs work on farms and in factories

With millions of young able-bodied Americans off to war, there was an acute shortage of manpower needed to work the country's farms and factories.  As a result, large numbers of POWs were used to pick cotton, harvest apples, work in logging operations, labor in canneries, supply clerical help, and much more.  Under the terms of the Geneva Conventions, they were actually paid the rough equivalent of a U.S. Army private's pay, $0.80 per day.  Their wages were paid in scrip, a kind of coupon which could be redeemed in the camp's canteen, not hard cash.  Actual money, it was feared, might encourage and aid in escape attempts. 

Every effort was made to make life as meaningful as possible for the prisoners.  Prison life was described by one former POW as "firm but fair."  Most camps had a library.  The prisoners themselves were encouraged to put together concerts and theatrical productions.  Sporting events and other games were promoted.  Movies were shown several days a week.  Educational classes were provided, many of which later counted as credit at German high schools and universities.  Woven throughout camp life was an intentional effort to hold forth democracy and freedom over against fascism and manipulative control of people's lives.  Seeds of liberty sown in the hearts and minds of many German POWs sprouted in the form of the democratic government which took root first in West Germany, then in a unified Germany.

The legacy of America's POW program

Over the war years, many of the POWs developed close relationships with American farm families, fellow factory workers, and other local residents around the camps.  At times they would actually eat meals with them in their homes.  Some of those Americans even sent letters to the families of the prisoners back in Germany, and then shipped them food parcels in the years of deprivation in Europe following the war.  The ties became so strong that many POWs immigrated back to the U.S. and became American citizens.  In the years since war's end, thousands of former German POWs have returned to visit the people and the places that had such an impact on their lives.  Communities like Stark, New Hampshire, and Aliceville, Alabama, have actually held reunions for former prisoners, guards and local residents.

America's humane and fair treatment of the POWs committed to her care would emerge as one of the bright, shining episodes in the long and sad story of World War II.  Allen Koop, modern day historian who wrote a book about the Camp Stark POW facility in New Hampshire, called it "a glimmer of light in a dark world ... an island of decency in a world filled with violence."  Only the power of God can enable people to obey the Biblical injunction to love one's enemies.  His power was vividly on display in America's wartime POW program ... 75 years ago.

For more of Donnie Hudgens’ World War II Diary entries visit his website at ww2diary.wordpress.com.