Monday, August 29, 2022

Resistance and Escape by German Prisoners in Wisconsin's PW Camps During WWII

During WWII, Hitler's Third Reich drafted all manner of men into their army, both Nazi and anti-Nazi alike. In fact, according to Stalag, U.S.A: The remarkable story of German POWs in America, by Judith M. Gansberg, only about 10-15 percent of Germany's enlisted men were hard-core Nazis. Those considered anti-Nazis or resisters were quickly sent into combat zones. Thus, as I mentioned in my WWII novel Season of My Enemy, most of the German prisoners of war sent to work in Wisconsin's agricultural industry were not hardened Nazis, but mostly young men anxious about their homes and families back in Germany. Men who quietly did the work required while they waited out the war. Prisoners who were true Nazis like Hitler’s SS (recognized by paperwork and telltale tattoos) were sorted out upon entry to the country and sent to special, tightly-controlled prison camps.

Now and then a Nazi sympathizer did manage to slip through, but even then, they were usually found out and dealt with accordingly, sometimes amongst the prisoners themselves. As you might imagine under such circumstances, there was a varying difference of opinions among the prisoners. Factions formed within the larger camps between those of differing political attitudes. Those still sympathetic to the Nazi cause might try to exert influence and control over the other prisoners or even attempt to take over a camp. This was a problem that couldn’t be entirely solved. Nevertheless, by war’s end, the U.S. military court-martialed, sentenced to death, and hanged fourteen PWs found guilty of murder within the camps. Many others were convicted of lesser crimes and made to complete prison sentences before they could be repatriated to Germany after the war.

My post today is only referring to the German prisoners. Korean prisoners captured among Japanese units frequently volunteered to join the U.S Army. They were rejected, but it is believed they did so sincerely because the Japanese had conquered their country and then drafted them. Yet, they added yet another division to an already testy situation in some of the camps.

In prison camps like Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy, bands of prisoners staged a few riots, work stoppages, and other forms of resistance. Occasionally there were acts of personal aggression toward guards. Refusing to cooperate in daily tasks were forms of more passive resistance. If an undetected Nazi or SS tried stirring up trouble in the ranks, procedures were in place to identify agitators and have them removed. Most of the German barracks then coexisted in an attitude of resignation and peaceful cooperation.

The Geneva Convention recognized that it was the duty of prisoners to attempt escape, and in it they set parameters of punishment for such offenses. Attempted escapes could result in up to thirty days of hard labor and thirty days on bread and water or both. The decision would be made by the camp’s commanding officer. However, if a prisoner was caught in the very act of escape, authorities retained the right to shoot them on sight.

There are numerous stories of escapes that ended peaceably, some by Japanese prisoners and some by Germans. The most obvious opportunities came with the Germans who had gained the opportunity to go off base to work. Content with their lot for the most part, many departures were of the adventure-seeking variety. German PWs sometimes walked away from their work or camp simply to see the sights, take a swim, or to visit the ladies and local eating and drinking establishments. They often returned undetected in time for morning roll call. Some prisoners even located extended family members in the region and joined them for dinner or other pleasurable pastimes before returning to their camps or being picked up and brought back.

As for the citizens who lived near the PW camps, they held one of two views. There were those who feared the prisoners being housed so nearby and working among them, certain that the Germans intended to kill them in their beds. Then there were those who had little or no fear of the prisoners or of their possible escape. Some locals visited the camps either to sight-see out of curiosity, or to inquire as to some relative back in Germany, since so many Wisconsinites had come from Germany themselves or held some other familial connection.

History is rife with the telling of families who had PWs working on their farms, or who worked beside them in the fields and factories, and later corresponded with the former prisoners after the war. Some sent care packages to them in Germany. Some became sponsors when PWs wished to immigrate back to the States after their repatriation.

This short blog doesn’t give me space to share the many anecdotes I read about in my research for Season of My Enemy, but I hope that if the history of the German PWs intrigues you, you’ll look into it. The following 12-minute video is a concise, fascinating, and at moments astounding look into this bit of American and German history.


Heroes, Heroines, and History is winding up August and our month-long, Three Million Views Celebration! If you haven’t entered yet for one of our big drawings, it’s your LAST CHANCE to enter to win part of a giveaway of over 60 books in 18 prizes! One grand prize will consist of 10 books, two readers will win a second prize containing 5 books, and there will be 15 winners of a third prize containing 2 books each. There are several ways to earn entries, such as following, or commenting on the HHH blog each day. Thank you for being part of the HHH community, and best wishes in the giveaway! Enter at this link:

I also invite you to read my novel of a very special heroine and her Wisconsin family who encounter a group of German PWs on their farm during WWII.

Enjoying our celebration with you!


  1. Thanks for posting today and giving us a different viewpoint of the POW's interred within the country. And I appreciate your monthly contributions to the blog as well.

    1. Thank you for that encouragement, Connie! Blessings!

  2. Thank you for your post with your research history of WWII prisoners on America soil. I really enjoyed reading Season of My Enemy by you. Blessings on your writing.

    1. I'm so glad you liked it! Thank you, Marilyn. :)

  3. Naomi, Thank you for sharing this fascinating post!