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German POWs' articles about Camp Algona

Slide show presentation about Camp Algona by Michael Luick-Thrams

Slide show presentation about Camp Algona by Steve Feller


  The Legacy

           By the end of the Second World War some 400,000 German Italian and Japanese POWs found themselves imprisoned in the United States; millions more Axis and Allied POWs were held in camps in Europe, the Soviet Union, Canada, Australia and Africa. While Axis POWs were both the perpetrators as well as victims of dictatorships and state terror, both sides’ POW experiences embody ageless, timely themes of war and peace, justice under arms and issues regarding human rights, international reconciliation and future conflict avoidance.

           Those German and Italian POWs held in over 500 camps across the U.S. were sent out to harvest and process crops, build roads and waterways, fell trees, roof barns, etc. In the process, they formed significant, often decades long friendships with “the enemy” and under went considerable changes as individuals and as a group—thus fundamentally influencing post-war German values and institutions, as well as American-German relations. Many even emigrated to the U.S. after the war.

           From 1943-46 Camp Algona in Iowa and it’s 34 branch camps in Iowa, Minnesota and both Dakotas housed up to 10,000 German POWs. [Iowa was one of only a few states to see POWs from all three Axis nations: it’s first POW base camp, Camp Clarinda, housed initially German, then Japanese prisoners; Italian POWs built Camp Algona before German ones full occupied it.] As TRACES’ executive director and a native Iowan at home in Berlin and in Iowa, historian Michael Luick–Thrams has preserved myriad stories of German POWs imprisoned in the Camp Algona system.

The Relevance

           The stories of German POWs in Iowa—and as a comparison, those of Iowa POWs in the Third Reich—transcend clichés and polemics: they challenge those who encountered them to deal with the origins and the effects of dictatorships and militarism, with war as a “tool” of statecraft and with the larger legacy of WWII. And — as a case study — in an era of demanded German compensations for forced labor, learning German POWs’ stories reveals that the majority were returned to Europe early in 1946—but rather then to their own country, to work in Britain or France until as late as fall 1948. [A third of the 3.5 million German POWs sent to Siberia at the war’s end literally were worked to death, those who did return to Germany trickled back as late as 1956.] The question arises: what indelible human rights do capture enemy soldiers retain, regardless of all other considerations?

           Further, by bringing Axis POWs to the U.S., the Allies inadvertently defanged even the most ardent Nazi POWS and created “Little Ambassadors”. First, Nazi loyalists among the Germans saw that the wild and rabid anti-U.S. propaganda that they had been fed didn’t fit what they saw in America. Second, all German POWs learned by example what democracy looked like on a daily, personal basis. Third, after the German capitulation some were chosen for special “re-education” to counter lingering post-war Nazi ideology once backs in Europe. Fourth, most German POWs took with them to Germany news and views of America which, by and large, spoke well of the U.S.—the land of their victors and former “enemies”.

           Conversely, the Third Reich’s almost exclusively ungenerous, heavy-handed and often arbitrary treatment of U.S. POW—more of whom came from Iowa, per capita and in raw numbers, the any other state—generated ill will of at least indifference regarding Germany’s post-war fate and spoiled most of an entire generation’s ability to respond to German culture or people in rational, sympathetic or welcoming ways.

While it is not TRACES’ goal to “rebuke” Germans alive today, we believe that both Americans and Germans can benefit from critically examining this shared past. To facilitate that process we have gathered, preserved and now present—before they are lost to the world—stories of German an Iowa POWs as they were imprisoned on each others’ soil during WWII. By doing s, we hope that today’s and future generations might understand and emulate the qualities of the universal human sprit that allow us to rise above and eventually defeat the prejudices, fears and conflicts which otherwise can demean and destroy us.

The Project

            Although POWs have been the focus of a number of academic works and popular films, TRACES’ main goals are education and increased awareness, not just research or entertainment; ours is an effort to raise universal issues such as personal accountability and civic responsibility, the fluid lines between “good’ and “evil”, revenge and compassion, “perpetrators: and “victims”—the inalienable humanity of both.

           To create foci for exploring those issues, in the summers of 2001 and 2002 a TRACES research team filmed over 75 hours of interviews with former German and Iowa POWs or their family members. It also collected many artifacts related to the former German POWs: over 300 hundred photos, contemporary films of Camp Algona and POWs at work on Minnesota farms, more then 250 letters between the upper Midwest and Germany during and after the war, numerous POWs journals, religious or text or other books, camp “money”, hand made maps, numerous paintings and cartoons and sketches, chess pieces carved from stolen army broomsticks, certificates and Ids, U.S. Military checks payable to Europe-bound POWs, a pipe and a toiletry bag brought in camp canteen, razor and paint sets, wood carving tool, four duffel bags, sheet music, memoirs, the POW-crafted 2/3rds-life-size nativity scene, etc.

           In total, the narratives and artifacts document a story, which takes turns unexpected of former participants in such a deadly war machine as the Third Reich’s Wehrmacht. Without exception, each of the German POWs interviewed issued moving statements against war and for peace—and that the theme appears repeatedly in their accounts, intimately illustrated with personal, vivid details. As these veterans were both the perpetrators and the victims of Nazism, theirs are uniquely rich as modern “war tales”.



A "tour" of the German POWs' daily-life world follows:



U.S. Army Map of the Camp Algona System

Iowa was one of only two of the then-48 U.S. states to have all three Axis-power POWs on its soil. German soldiers built Iowa’s other base camp at Clarinda, but they later were moved to make way for arriving Japanese prisoners; in large part, the Germans were sent to Algona, which had been built by Italian POWs. Like Algona, Camp Clarinda had its own constellation of branch camps—at least two of which were assigned to its northern counterpart during the transition (Shenandoah and Tabor).


Camp Algona’s branch camps were:

—(in Iowa) Charles City, Clinton, Eldora, Muscatine, Onawa, Shenandoah, Storm Lake, Tabor, Toledo and Waverly

—(in Minnesota) Ada, Bena, Bird Island, Crookston, Deer River (also known as “Camp Cut Foot Sioux”), Fairmont, Faribault, Grand Rapids, Hollandale, Howard Lake, Montgomery, Moorhead, New Ulm, Olivia, Ortonville, Owatonna, Remer, Saint Charles, Warren and Wells [some sources also name Princeton as a branch camp of Camp Algona; others do not]

—(in North Dakota) Grafton and Grand Forks

—(in South Dakota) Sioux Falls and Yankton

Click on those names in red to see pictures of or articles about those camps.

The POWs' Letters

introduction | afterword

  Part Ia | Part Ib

[Downloading time may vary, depending on several factors.]


to order TRACES' book | Signs of Life |

The POWs' Newspapers

introduction | afterword
Die Drahtpost #1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6 #7 #8 #9 #11 #12 #13 #14 #15 #16 #17
Die Lagerzeitung #1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6 #7 #8

to order TRACES' book | Camp Papers |
no newspaper artwork has been posted here; order the book to access the many drawings, headlines and other graphics


Encounters between Midwesterners and German or Austrian POWs

Bob Baker | Bill Berg | Jim Fitzgerald | Evelyn Grabow | Byron Holcomb
Marjorie Myers Douglas | Mary Siems Manau


Links relevant to German POWs

POWs in America | POWs in the South |Italian POWs | German POW "Re-education"

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