POW Camps in the US
July 21, 2005 6:07 PM   Subscribe

I didn't know there were POW camps in the US during World War II, let alone so many of them. The list of camps is extensive, but not on any list I've seen so far is the former Wright Field (currently Wright-Patterson Air Force Base). The base is preserving the walls of the former mess hall where German POWs left a cool set of freaky demonic murals filled with old germanic folklore. The story behind them is a interesting read.
posted by Dome-O-Rama (24 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Very interesting. I havn't read all of the links yet, but this reminds me of a story about how German POWs in some camps had much better living conditions than most of the locals who happened to be Black Americans.

Not derailing, just interesting stuff.
posted by snsranch at 6:42 PM on July 21, 2005

My mom grew up near one of them in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; Camp Germfask, I believe. Anyway, the war took place when she was but a wee little girl, and she and her friends would hang out by the side of the road to wait for the trucks full of POWs to cruise by. The trucks would go by slowly so the German soldiers could throw candy at the girls.
posted by NoMich at 6:49 PM on July 21, 2005

No, it was not Camp Germfask. That was in the eastern UP and my mom grew up in the Keweenaw, which is in the western part of the UP. Camp Germfask is where the Amercian COs were held during the war.
posted by NoMich at 6:53 PM on July 21, 2005

So what were the "Krauts" doing with candy anyway?

Seriously, having read about how well German POWs were treated here as opposed to how our G.I.s were treated "overthere", it seems that many americans bought into that whole "white race" thing.

I'm not even talking about the obvious names like Lindburg or Henry Ford. It just seems as though the Germans were treated more like cousins than POWs.

In fact I think I've read that we had Italian POWs who were really treated poorly.

Any thoughts on that?
posted by snsranch at 7:00 PM on July 21, 2005

well be sure you look at the murals...
posted by Dome-O-Rama at 7:20 PM on July 21, 2005

The history department of my college put on a 'Pearl Harbor' day celebration back in 1991, and brought in local speakers from that era. One man was a German who had been in a POW camp in Tellico Plains Tennessee (a county over from my school). He told about working in the Bush factory canning food and how he fell in love with the area. Once the war was over he settled there for good.

I had never known there were POW camps in this country, nor did I realize that they had existed in my own back yard.
posted by UseyurBrain at 7:35 PM on July 21, 2005

"I had never known there were POW camps in this country".

As Chevy Chase said to Jane Curtin: "Jane, you ignorant slut!"

Are people so ignorant of history that they don't know we had POW camps in this country?
Next, we will be amazed that we interned American citizens in camps.

posted by davebarnes at 7:51 PM on July 21, 2005

WPAFB is just a county away as well for me.
posted by Dome-O-Rama at 7:52 PM on July 21, 2005

A friend of mine lived in an old farmhouse that was the officers' quarters for one of these camps in Bixby, OK. We used to have band practice there in his living room.
posted by password at 8:25 PM on July 21, 2005

The POW camps inspired the book and Kristy McNichol movie Summer of My German Soldier.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:36 PM on July 21, 2005

A (late) friend of my parents was an inmate at one of these camps. He was young at the time (17) and it was the last years of the war. However, he told of being forced to linve (and sleep) outdoors, and being systematically starved to the point that the German POWs were eating grass.
IIRC there is a book (by a Canadian writer) on this topic.
posted by bashos_frog at 8:46 PM on July 21, 2005

I'm a history buff, just I tend to concentrate more in the medieval era where I have a web[page and articles on medieval beadwork My husband is the WWII expert.

I dunno where I just thought we had them, somewhere else I guess. As of late my interest has been more into the Revolutionary war thanks to an antique pendant I found from 1773.
posted by Dome-O-Rama at 8:46 PM on July 21, 2005

This is a marvelous post. Thanks, Dome-O-Rama.
posted by mediareport at 10:29 PM on July 21, 2005

It just seems as though the Germans were treated more like cousins than POWs.

I think this is understandable, given the historical context. At that particular point in US history, Germans were the largest single ethnic/immigrant group in America (outside of WASPs). While Nazis, as a group, were broadly detested in the US, it was easy for many to make the not-all-Germans-are-Nazis mental leap, because many of them had been separated from Germany by less than a generation.
posted by psmealey at 10:43 PM on July 21, 2005

IIRC there is a book (by a Canadian writer) on this topic.

Probably POW - Behind Canadian Barbed Wire, which is linked near the bottom of the list of camps in the original post. There's lots of great stuff on that page.
posted by mediareport at 10:43 PM on July 21, 2005

A book called Stalag Wisconsin may be one of the better records of this era (it seems many of the military records were destroyed in a fire). Synopsis, and some photos. POWs were initially housed closer to the front, such as in England, but there were fears of having so many German prisoners, so from 1942 on most European theater POWs were moved to the US -- eventually some 400,000 of them.

Yes, the Germans were treated well -- Geneva convention rules applied, German officers and the Red Cross inspected -- and it was returned; apparently it wasn't uncommon for former POWs to come back to the US. Most German POWs were not Nazis, may even have been drafted and sent to the front for anti-Nazi activities, and may even have set down their weapons and walked into Allied lines (there are documented instances). This applied doubly to non-Germans (e.g. Poles) in the Wehrmacht. (Conversely, hard-core Nazis and SS were held in high-security camps, because they were more likely to attempt escape and sabotage.) The POWs were legally used for jobs such as stevedore or farm labor, because many families had men in the war. These workers might even live with the families they worked for.

I frequently ride up by a field in town where the tent camp was. There's no trace of it now.

It does appear that the Italian POW experience was just as, er, idyllic (if you count POW-local girl romances). If anything, it went more easily, because in 1943 the Italian government switched sides. In some cases, like the mural example above, they left artistic marks. Food was a problem, though, and there were undoubtedly areas where racism played a part.

When you look at the "enemy alien" laws and the internment of Japanese-Americans, it may seem counterintuitive, but the Japanese POW experience was also generally positive, though not without its psychological toll, particularly given the no-surrender honor code that soldiers were indoctrinated to.
posted by dhartung at 12:05 AM on July 22, 2005

In my hometown, there is a ceremony every year to remember 26 German POW's who died while being held at the base there (formerly known as Fort Custer). They all died of natural causes or accidents. Most years there is at least one former POW who comes to give a speech. The interesting thing is, almost every single one of the speakers ended up living in the US after the war.
posted by groar at 12:06 AM on July 22, 2005

I live in Dayton, and used to live right next to WPAFB, and as much as I thought I knew about my hometown, I never knew this. Thanks a bunch. Soon I will see for myself :)
posted by adzm at 12:41 AM on July 22, 2005

The murals instantly reminded me of Maurice Sendak's toothy monsters in his sixties classic "Where The Wild Things Are" - googling him throws up a Polish Jewish immigrant background. I suppose I was curious whether there was some shared German folklore inspiration with the artistic POWs...
posted by Jody Tresidder at 4:36 AM on July 22, 2005

Odd. The list seems to be missing a camp near Jackman, Maine. I've been out there many, many times. The cooking ovens are just about the only things left. Many local stories about the prisoners, and I believe they have had a few prisoner reunions up there. Great post.
posted by anathema at 5:03 AM on July 22, 2005

Very interesting. I love the photos especially. Found some more from this page on the POW in Utah, at the bottom there's links to some nice collections of photographs of the Italian and German prisoners (very slow to load, but worthy it).
posted by funambulist at 6:45 AM on July 22, 2005

My Brother-in-Law's father (or Grandfather, can't remember) was a German POW at a camp in Alberta. I remember staying at his house a few years back and seeing a landscape painting of an Alberta scene. Turns out it was given to his relative by another POW, and was of the Kananaskis area
posted by smcniven at 7:16 AM on July 22, 2005

Excellent post. Thank you.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:12 AM on July 22, 2005

In The Godfather, the baker that makes the wedding cake asks Don Corleone to arrange for Enzo, who's a paroled Italian POW, to stay in the US and marry the baker's daughter.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:49 PM on July 22, 2005

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