Did you know that during World War II, the United States housed over 425,000 Nazi prisoners?
That fact was a surprise to me too, and I might not have known about it had I not come across the mention of a United States German POW camp in a recent novel I read. One reason I like to read historical novels is that I always learn something, so like any good researcher, I had to check out the history behind the story.
What I discovered was that soon after the US entered World War II, the United Kingdom approached the US about housing prisoners. The UK had a shortage of space for war captives and appealed to our country because we had much more space.
|POWs board train in Boston|
Soon the prisoners began arriving at the rate of 30,000 per month. Because the US observed rules of the 1929 Geneva Convention, these prisoners were treated very well, much better than their American counterparts were in Nazi-controlled camps.
|Fort Sam Houston POW Camp, Texas|
Forty-six states housed the 700 prisons which, aside from guard towers and barbed wire, resembled military training camps. According to the Convention, prisoners lived in quarters comparable to that of American soldiers. The three admirals and forty generals who were prisoners were sent to a camp in Mississippi where each had his own cottage and garden.
|POWs working sugar beet farm, So. Dakota|
Because so many American men were in the military fighting overseas, the German prisoners helped fill the employee void in the US by working in mills, factories and farms. They were paid for their labor in scrip they could use in the camp canteen, therefore helping to pay their own costs of imprisonment.
|POW camp, Nebraska|
Newspaper coverage and public knowledge of the camps was avoided until after the war, also complying with the rules of the Convention and to keep US citizens from fearing the large presence of the enemy. Citizens who lived near the camps were most aware of them, and also often the ones who benefited the most.
Ironically, the government received letters from civilians complaining that the prisoners were treated too well. But in addition to abiding by the rules of the Convention, the government hoped that by treating the German prisoners well, the treatment would be reciprocated for American POWs.
|POW soccer team, Mississippi|
Life for these Germans was firm, but fair, and with a shortage of American guards, the prisoners were mostly supervised by German officers who maintained discipline, marched them to and from meals and prepared them for work.
|Nazi POWs enjoy leisure time in camp|
Sometimes the prisoners were allowed outside the camps without guards on the honor system. Many of the prisoners even found the living conditions in the camps to be better than they had as civilians back in Germany. The camps provided them with writing utensils, art supplies, woodworking utensils and musical instruments, encouraging hobbies as well as sports.
One former POW wrote, “We all were positively impressed by the USA…We all had been won over to friendly relations.” Several camps held social receptions with local girls and some of the Germans even met their future wives while prisoners.
The prisoners were well-fed, as noted by a former POW, “When I was captured, I weighed 128 pounds. After two years as an American POW, I weighed 185, I had gotten so fat.”
Did you know about the German POW camps in the United States?
The book that inspired this research was The One True Love of Alice Ann by Eva Marie Everson. Leave a comment (and your email) for a chance to win a copy!
Marilyn Turk loves to study history, especially that of lighthouses and the coast of the United States. She is the author of Rebel Light, a Civil War love story set on the coast of Florida, A Gilded Curse, an award-winning historical suspense novel set on Jekyll Island, Georgia, in 1942, and Lighthouse Devotions - 52 Inspiring Lighthouse Stories, based on her popular lighthouse blog. (@ http://pathwayheart.com)