Held in the Heartland:
German POWs in the Midwest, 1943-46
by Michael Luick-Thrams
By the end of World War II some 425,000 German, Italian and Japanese prisoners of war (POWs) found themselves imprisoned in over 660 base and branch POW camps in almost all of the then-48 United States and the territory of Alaska. Millions more Axis and Allied POWs were held in other camps in Europe, the Soviet Union, Canada, Australia and Africa. While Axis and Soviet POWs were both the perpetrators as well as victims of dictatorial governments and state-sponsored violence, POW experiences on all sides embody ageless and timely themes of war and peace, justice under arms, and issues regarding human rights, international reconciliation and future conflict avoidance.
The roughly 372,000 German POWs held in U.S. Army-operated camps across the United States were sent out to harvest or process crops, build roads and waterways, fell trees, roof barns, erect silos, work in light non-military industry, lay city sewers and construct tract housing, wash U.S. Army laundry and do other practical wartime tasks. With the high rate of 19th-century German immigration to the Midwest, many of those who worked with POWs spoke to them in their native tongue; some even had relatives or former neighbors among them. In the process, they formed significant, often decades-long friendships with “the enemy” and underwent considerable changes as individuals and as a group—thus fundamentally influencing postwar German values and institutions, as well as American-German relations. A number of POWs even chose to immigrate to the United States after the war.
While Midwest soldiers and airmen were in Europe, blasting German cities to rubble, some German soldiers sat out the rest of the war after being captured—behind barbed wire, in the American Heartland. While here, some secretly dated local girls, sneaked into corner bars, and darkened movie houses, and some even took correspondence courses for which they would earn college credit back in postwar Germany. All this occurred while a vicious global war raged on beyond the peaceful Midwest, claiming over 55 million lives and laying entire countries to waste. This exhibit documents the contradictions and ironies of both war and imprisonment—above all to stimulate reflection, discussion and insight.
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1. Before the Storm: Pre-Captivity Life
The National Socialist Party took control of Germany’s democratic Weimar Republic in 1933 through legal means—not by a majority vote but by building a grand coalition with smaller political factions. Once Adolf Hitler’s “Nazi” party seized power, it swiftly passed legislation that made its control over Germany absolute. The fates of the men who would become German soldiers in the later war for global conquest were determined by larger political events. While family and private life remained the focus of most Germans’ daily lives, public life became increasingly marked by the demands of the party. Schools, religious bodies, social organizations and other non-familial groups parroted Nazi ideals of patriotism, racial superiority, history, art and culture—even in sports and nature clubs! Former opponents of Nazism retreated into an uneasy realm of “inner migration”—a tense, dangerous co-existence with a deadly regime. Eventually, though, most Germans came to accept Nazi rule: for them, so-called “Greater Germany” offered a source of restored national pride and hope for the future. Few foresaw the many regions that the Nazi war machine would come to occupy, let alone the destruction of much of Germany.
2. Into Enemy Hands: Capture
A string of German military victories across Europe from fall 1939 to spring 1941 convinced Hitler and his enemies of apparent Nazi invincibility. When Erwin Rommel’s troops surrendered to British and American forces in Tunisia in May 1943, more than 100,000 captured Afrika Korps members overwhelmed hastily built British and U.S. camps for detained German POWs, scattered across North Africa. The British had entered the war much earlier than the U.S. and by August 1942 that tiny island’s ability to house increasing numbers of enemy captives was reaching a breaking point. They also feared that should German forces land at Dover and push north, German POWs held in the Midlands might rise up and head south—squeezing the capital in a vise that would force British surrender. For that reason, London implored Washington to take as many captured Axis prisoners as it could. Little did the Roosevelt administration realize, that after later Allied victories in Italy, Northern France, the western Rhineland and the heart of Germany itself, the number of German POWs would reach the millions—more than a third of a million of whom would be shipped to the United States for the war’s duration.
3. Removed from Hell: Transport
To move such vast numbers of men and material, the U.S. Government appropriated ocean liners such as the Queen Mary; they were painted Army gray and converted to carry some 15,000 POWs at a time, stacked in hammocks hung in former luxury cabins. “Liberty Ships” and other quickly recruited vessels formed convoys that zigzagged across the Atlantic Ocean to dodge U-boats; many of the ships were equipped with torpedo nets, lest the German navy inadvertently try to sink its own men. Mostly landing at Newport News, New York City or Boston, a large number of the German POWs were transferred to Pullman train cars bound for the Midwest. It was there that many saw black people for the first time—some as Army guards. They also witnessed another first: paper plates. Often, after eating their first meal on such strange tableware, when they asked the guards about cleaning up, they were told to open the windows and simply throw the trash out the moving trains. Apparently, POW transports passed those routes at the same time every day, as the Germans were amazed to see what looked like banks of snow covering the railway bed: whole embankments of accumulated paper plates and napkins!
4. Away from the Bullets: Camp Life
Base camps for Axis POWs (usually named after the nearest civilian settlement) generally resembled camps the U.S. Army built for its own soldiers, but with much more elaborate security features: guard towers, no-man’s zones between inner and outer enclosures, taller fences with barbed wire, search lights, machine guns and the like. Most had an Army administrative area and maintenance facilities, separate from secured compounds containing POW barracks, washhouses, perhaps a sick room or library, etc. Often Nazi cliques dominated the daily lives of POWs inside the compounds, at least until the defeat of Hitler’s regime in May 1945. Branch camps, however, physically differed greatly from the set-ups of base camps. Typically housed in former Civilian Conservation Corps camps, fairground buildings or grandstands, sports halls, vacant schools or other public buildings, branch camps tended to operate seasonally and with significantly less security. As the POWs were not allowed to use telephones, most base-camp systems published an official, Red-Cross-supported camp newspaper, through which the German POW echelon communicated with men at the branch camps.
5. Endless Toil: Work
As was the case with U.S. POW officers held in the Third Reich, imprisoned German officers were not required to work outside the camps—although after Nazi capitulation, many volunteered, to earn money to take with them on their inevitable return to Europe. Non-officers, however, had no choice but to do farm or forestry work, or to labor in non-military industries. Midwest farmers and loggers paid the U.S. Government 50 to 60 cents an hour for POW labor, of which 10 cents was paid to the POWs in special camp scrip, up to 80 cents a day, even during peak seasons when the men might toil longer than eight hours. Guards accompanied work units of more than three POWs, but smaller bands worked on farms without a guard. Especially on small work details, German POWs forged friendships with Midwest farmers and their families—in the 1940s, many of whom still spoke at least some German, being of German-immigrant stock. Some farmers sent CARE packages to POWs’ families after the men returned to war-torn Germany. Many former POWs and their “employers” exchanged letters or cards long after the war. Some farmers even invited individual POWs return after the war to marry a daughter and take over the farm.
6. A Captive Eye: POW Art
As it did for Midwest POWs imprisoned in camps in Nazi-occupied Europe, art provided German POWs held in the American Heartland both an escape from their immediate environment and a way to process their recent experiences and their current emotions. Already upon capture in North Africa, some German Afrika Korps soldiers sketched scenes of Arab traders or desert POW camps. Other subjects of later POW art included the ships that transported them to “Amerika”, camp sports events, other prisoners, or scenes from work assignments beyond the barbed wire. Later, as homesickness settled upon the men, many created nostalgic images of the German countryside or of beautiful Teutonic women. The men filled Red-Cross or YMCA-supplied blank books used as journals, and special, handcrafted comic books with depictions of camp-life. Besides one-dimensional art, POWs also captured German motherhood or even likenesses of Native American chiefs in woodcarvings, or on the sides of elaborate jewelry boxes. Many Midwest farm families and guards happily received gifts of art from the German POWs—or even traded extra cigarettes for “commissioned” portraits or other works.
7. Much-Welcome Respite: Freetime
Free time afforded welcome distractions not just from a war the POWs well knew was devastating their homeland, but from the crushing boredom of indefinite detainment. Sports kept athletes and spectators alike focused on endless rounds of soccer, table-tennis tournaments, chess championships, boxing matches and much more. Handicrafts, gardening or grounds work, night classes and newspaper production tended to busy smaller numbers of POWs. Many more participated in often-elaborate theatrical or musical productions, with women’s parts being playfully acted by men. Camp staff or guards—and, at times, even their families—were invited to join live-performance or concert audiences. In December 1945 (by then armed hostilities had ceased between Germany and the United States), a POW team of artisans at Camp Algona, Iowa, crafted a two-thirds-life-sized nativity scene to be enjoyed by POWs as well as people from the surrounding area. More private, “therapeutic” free-time activities included ever-popular journaling and writing endless series of letters or postcards—on prescribed, and censored, U.S. Army stationary—to family and friends back in Germany.
8. One with Another: Relationships
Among the German POWs were many anti-Nazis, apolitical types or simply individuals critical of the war. At times this caused tension between the men, even to the point of fanatical Nazis murdering other German POWs in their beds at night. The Camp Algona system, for one, had an anti-Nazi branch camp at Howard Lake/Minnesota. Other camp systems also identified men in danger because of dissident views of Nazism or the war—a state of affairs that changed radically after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Still, regardless of their political persuasions, most of German POWs enjoyed harmonious relationships with each other, and even with the guards, with whom they often traded favors with or gave gifts—including birthday cakes or presents. The U.S. Army allowed POW brothers to reunite, provided the men paid for the train ticket and guard needed to transport one brother from one camp, cross-country, to another. Some of the men established contact with relatives who had emigrated to the United States before the war, while others formed friendships with fellow POWs that lasted decades, often till death.
9. Escape, Resistance, Capitulation: Return to Europe
Escape attempts occurred, but relatively seldom, given German POWs knew they stood no chance of reaching Europe and most felt grateful to be far removed from flying bullets and the savagery of war. Some of those who did escape wanted little more than to wander into town to buy a beer, or to embarrass the often lax guards. Serious escapees, once apprehended, endured disciplinary actions that—especially for repeat offenders—included bread-and-water diets or solitary confinement (in at least one case, naked). After May 1945 the U.S. Army selected 25,000 thousand German POWs for “re-education” efforts, in violation of the Geneva Convention, and in November 1945 the U.S. Government surrendered some xxx thousands “Volga Deutsche” —Soviet citizens of German descent who had been forced to fight in the Wehrmacht—to waiting Soviet officials: the men were shot immediately. Of the remaining 370,000 German POWs in the U.S. at the war’s end, only about 50,000 were returned directly to Germany in summer 1946: the U.S. handed the other third of a million to our British and French allies to use as slave laborers on farms or in mines, some of them until as late as September 1948.
10. Reconciling the Past: Home Again
Despite the near-total indoctrination that they had received as Hitler Youth, in the United States German POWs saw, in tangible and undeniable ways, that it was possible to have a decent, prosperous society without the heavy hand of dictatorship. Especially after Nazi Germany’s collapse in May 1945, the men learned lifelong lessons about democracy in action—and those selected for “re-education” largely returned to their broken homeland to rebuild it as teachers, mayors, newspaper editors or journalists, or other roles as social leaders. Like most Germans, it took years for them to examine and unlearn Nazi propaganda—although contrary to postwar U.S. stereotypes, that process for the POWs already began in spring 1945, more than a year before they returned to Europe. Also, in the process of witnessing “American” values such as democracy, individual freedom, etc., most POWs came to admire the United States and its people. Even during the most disillusioning years of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, former German POWs remained loyal friends and staunch defenders of the United States. Many happily revisited the U.S. in later years, with an estimated 5% even emigrating to the U.S.
The Geneva Convention
relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, as ratified 27 July 1929
General Provisions: Articles 1-4 designate those who are covered and define “prisoner of war,” specifically stating “POWs have the right to honor and respect”
Capture: Articles 6-7 cover what may/may not be done to a prisoner upon capture; require prisoners to give name and rank; prohibit coercion of other information; give prisoners the right to retain personal possessions
Captivity: Articles 8-67 require prisoners be evacuated from combat zones and that opposing sides be notified of capture; set standards for camps:
- call for separate locations for different races and nationalities
- require adequate food, clothing as well as medical, sanitary services
- require provision for religious, intellectual and physical activity needs of POWs
- establish rules for camp discipline and leadership
- call for treatment of officers appropriate to rank
- set rate of pay for POWs
- require safe transfer of POWs from one location to another, notification of transfer, and retention of personal possessions upon transfer
- detail work that may be done by prisoners and remuneration for it
- allow POWs to correspond with families, and receive mail, parcels, food, clothing
- put POWs under the same rules applying to the detaining power’s own code of military regulations
- prevent reduction of rank, and regulate treatment of escapees
Termination of Captivity: Articles 68-74 require repatriation of sick and seriously injured prisoners; cite conditions of repatriation upon end of hostilities; require honorable burial and marking of graves of those dying in captivity
Application to Certain Civilians: Article 81 entitles individuals who are non-military but linked (support contractors, war correspondents, etc.) to be treated as POWs
Execution of the Convention: Articles 82-97 set the conditions and time for the implementation of the articles and require that if one combatant force is a party to the convention, the opponent of that force is covered under the articles even though not a party to the convention