In Immigrant Soldier, Herman and his unit captured a young German soldier who hated the fighting and killing.  After Herman interrogated the youth, he sent the soldier to the prisoners’ infirmary.  “He hoped that the boy would be on the next transport to the coast and a ship to the United States. Maybe he would be picking cotton stateside by summer.” (page 300)
      Herman and the other interrogators often used a promise of transport to America to entice prisoners to disclose all they knew. True to their word, they wrote notes recommending transport to the United States for cooperative POWs.   The interrogators knew well that life in an internment camp in the US would be better than in the holding camps in Belgium.
      During the war years, 425,000 German and Italian military were interned as prisoners in the United States.  They lived in approximately 700 camps throughout the country but concentrated in the southern states, especially in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Other than barbed wire and watchtowers, the camps were similar to standard US Army military training sites.   In fact, the Geneva Convention of 1929 required that living quarters for POWs be comparable to those of the holding nation’s military housing.  The Geneva Convention also mandated that prisoners who worked must earn standard American military wages.
      Soon after the US entered the war, Britain, which had a severe housing shortage after the Blitz and was already accommodating thousands of POWs, asked Roosevelt to take as many prisoners as possible to America.  In spite of having no experience housing POWs from abroad, the US government agreed and tackled the logistics of building camps and supplying prisoners with food, clothing, and shelter.
        The prisoners were usually transported in Liberty Ships on the return trip after they delivered soldiers and material to the continent.  Though there was always the danger of the ship being sunk by German U-boats during the voyage, the POWs enjoyed substantial meals during the crossing and often Pullman car comfort from their port of entry to the prison camps.  To ensure security, the camps, which in the early days were often under construction when the inmates arrived, were situated far from urban or industrial areas.
       On arrival at the camps, the prisoners were required to lay out all personal items they still retained for the American guards to inspect. Most personal treasures were returned after they were examined, though money was kept until they were to be repatriated.  The prisoners were issued work clothing, underwear, warm outerwear, socks, and shoes.  Each item of clothing had a big white PW stamped on the back to make escape more difficult.
        Agricultural labor was desperately needed and most prisoners worked in the fields. But prisoners also might have been given jobs as orderlies in a hospital or as workers on the production lines in canneries or mills–any place labor was needed and where prisoners could work with minimum security.  Given the wartime labor shortage as more and more local young men were drafted or enlisted, the work of the prisoners was usually welcomed, especially in agricultural states.
       German and Italian prisoners who found themselves in the US probably fared better than they would have anywhere else, certainly better than their relatives living in the war-torn Third Reich. Besides accommodations with hot and cold running water, ample food, and basic clothing, they were also supplied with writing and art materials, musical instruments, daily beer coupons, and two packs of cigarettes a day (especially useful for bribing the American guards).  Because of a shortage of American guards, the prisoners were mainly supervised by their own officers who lived in small bungalows separate from the barracks that housed enlisted prisoners.
       POWs in the US camps were allowed regular correspondence with family back home and provided with entertainment.  They could purchase items at a canteen, borrow books from the prison library, subscribe to US newspapers and magazines, and attend movies shown at the prison theater.  Some prisoners took university-level correspondence classes, and educated prisoners were allowed to offer classes in English or other languages, business, and mathematics. Every camp published its own newspaper, which printed news and commentary, poetry, short stories, puzzles, event calendars, and classified ads. These newspapers, according to our American tradition of a free press, were not restricted in what they could print, and sometimes articles appeared that espoused Nazi propaganda.
      Best of all, prisoners were sometimes allowed to go into town on the honor system, eat at restaurants, or go to bars where they could interact with civilians.  A few camps offered their inmates occasional social functions with local American girls in attendance.  Naturally, this often led to unauthorized fraternization and not a few marriages after the war between German prisoners and their American girlfriends.
      Of course, problems and rebellion among the prisoners and toward their captors did occur. American guards sometimes taunted and ridiculed the prisoners.  Germans who continued to adhere to their Nazi ideology instigated work stoppages and strikes and secret kangaroo courts that declared fellow prisoners to be traitors and deserters.  Some of the first prisoners, especially those who had been part of Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps and had participated in Germany’s early military successes, remained loyal to the Third Reich.  They often intimidated or attacked prisoners captured later, after Normandy, who had learned the hard way that their fatherland was not infallible. There were confrontations between these factions within the camps and as many as fourteen murders.
       Escapes were attempted by less than one percent of the prisoners.  One notable escapee, Georg Gärtner, fearful of repatriation to Germany, managed to escape his camp in New Mexico in September 1945. He lived under a new identity as Dennis White until he surrendered in 1985 on a national TV show.
      Repatriation after the war actually became a sticky problem. Many German prisoners wanted to stay in America, but they were seldom allowed to do so. The Geneva Convention demanded swift repatriation after the war, but the news of the Holocaust atrocities changed the entire climate within the camps and slowed down the process.  German prisoners were required to watch documentaries of the grizzly discoveries at Nazi concentration camps before they were returned home. After viewing one such film, 1,000 prisoners at Camp Butner threw their German uniforms on a bonfire.  The majority of the prisoners were finally shipped back to Europe in 1946, months after the end of the war, and they often spent several more years as laborers in France or England before they set foot in Germany again. Considering the devastation and shortages within Germany after the war, this was, most likely, the best thing for them and for their country.
      Most Germans left the US with a positive connection to America.  They had learned to speak English, been well fed, learned to like American freedoms, and may even have made American friends.  Many later returned as immigrants who settled in the US and became American citizens.


4 responses to “World War II POWs in the United States”

  1. Phil Wilder

    I was born in 1933 and grew up in Downey, CA in Los Angeles County. At that time Downey was a rural community with orchards, dairies, and chicken farms. Our home was surrounded by orchards of oranges and walnuts which were harvested by Mexican workers prior to World War II. My boyhood friends and I became acquainted with these workers and were often invited to join them when they broke for lunch and shared with us their tortillas and beans which had been cooked on the hot ashes of the fires from orange tree trimmings. In early 1942. instead of our Mexican worker friends. down our street came a dozen olive drab painted trucks with canvas covers and large white stars on the doors. Out of the trucks came US Army MPs who opened the canvas on the tailgates. At least a dozen men were unloaded from each truck, wearing Army olive drab work uniforms with large PW letters on the backs of their shirts. Almost all of these men had light colored skin and hair and blue eyes. Two trucks had picking ladders and large wooden orange crates which were quickly unloaded and taken into the grove by the PWs. The supervising MPs explained to us boys that the prisoners came from North Africa, captured by the British Army, and brought to the US by our empty supply ships and that these prisoners were receiving the same pay, food, clothing, medical care, and amenities such as cigarettes as our own military personnel. They were thrilled to be here and posed no threat of escape!

    As a side note, these orchards were owned by American families of German descent.

    TEASER: Fast-forward 54 years when my future wife Elaine and I visited Angel Island State Park in San Francisco Bay. Angel Island had a notorious history of being the Ellis Island of the Pacific for immigrants seeking a better life in the US. Our tour of Angel Island included a San Francisco newspaper reporter and an elderly Asian gentleman who had been interred on Angel Island at the Immigration Station. According to them, the last internees were captured German military officers from North African campaigns of World War II,

    1. Katie Slattery

      Phil, Thanks for sharing this amazing story. Would you be willing to let me post it as a “guest blog?”

  2. Phil Wilder

    Katie, yes indeed, go ahead and post it!

    1. Katie Slattery

      Thanks, Phil. Not sure when I will get this done, but it’s always nice to have something special for when I am short on ideas.

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