WWII POWs in America and Abroad
BY Gary Slaughter
The book covers an interesting topic about World War II a topic that is often ignored: POW's during the war. While a great deal is known about the Nazis Death camps and concentration camps little is known about the POW camps both in Germany as well as those in the US that by then end of the war was housing hundreds of thousands of German and other prisoners. A great book to learn about a little covered aspect of the war.
In 1943, we landed in North Africa, to join forces with the British who were fighting there against the Germans and the Italians.
The British had no building materials to construct POW camps and couldn’t spare the men to guard POWs. The United States was asked to take custody of 50,000 of their prisoners. This first POW contingent was shipped back to America on the empty Liberty ships that had just off-loaded American troops and equipment in Algeria and Morocco.
The first German POWs to dock in New York City were surprised to see the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline, because Nazi propaganda claimed those familiar sights had been flattened by the Luftwaffe’s long-range bombers. In fact, Germany had no bombers capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
The Allies defeated Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa in November 1943. This victory, along with successful campaigns across Sicily and up the boot of Italy, added substantially to the number of Germans to be shipped to America for imprisonment.
This was a critical issue, because there had been no preparation WW II POWs In America and Abroad 22 for facilities to house them. The primary focus was on the buildup of our Armed Forces after Pearl Harbor. But within weeks, the U. S. Provost Marshall General submitted a program of prison camp construction to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proposing that these camps be built on American military bases having room to accommodate them and on the hundreds of abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps.
These CCC camps were perfect for housing POWs. Originally, they were established to provide rural employment to the great number of unemployed young men during the Depression. The camps were constructed close to rural work projects located primarily in the South and Southwest far from the critical War industries in the Midwest and the East.
In addition, the War Department opened a number of military bases that had extra space to house the prisoners. Those bases included:
• Camp Forrest, Tennessee (3,000 POWs)
• Camp Clark, Missouri (3,000 POWs)
• Fort Bliss, Texas (1,350 POWs)
• Fort Bragg, North Carolina (1,680 POWs)
• Fort Devens, Massachusetts (1,000 POWs)
• Fort Meade, Maryland (1,680 POWs)
• Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia (948 POWs)
• Camp McCoy, Wisconsin (100 POWs)
• Fort Sam Houston, Texas (1,000 POWs)
• Camp Shelby, Mississippi (1,200 POWs)
• Fort Sill, Oklahoma (700 POWs)
Prison camps established at these locations used existing facilities when available. If not, camps were built from scratch.
America Enters the POW Business 23 To prevent mass escapes, prisoners were dispersed widely in 155 base camps and 785 branch camps located all over the country, ideally at least 170 miles from the coast and 150 miles from the Canadian and Mexican borders.
Base camps were located on 365 acres and housed from 2,000 to 4,000 POWs. The branch camps were located near farms and businesses where 435,000 POWs were employed. Branch camps typically housed a few hundred POWs.
As a rule, camps were not located near military bases, shipyards, or defense factories. Most were built in the South or Southwest because these regions offered isolation in addition to POW employment opportunities and, of course, a warmer climate to reduce heating costs.
These initial locations were estimated to satisfy about 75% of the immediate need for housing POWs.
To meet the need for housing the estimated additional 144,000 POWs who were arriving, $50 million was needed to acquire the land and to build the necessary additional camps.
The question became where and in what form would these additional camps be constructed?
American POW Camps In constructing new camps, unlike our other Allies, England and the Soviet Union, we closely followed the guidelines spelled out in the Geneva Convention. Locations that did not have enough space for both prisoners and guards required both to live in tents.
Base camps consisted of the following facilities:
• Barracks for housing POWs and their Guards
• Mess halls
• Roadways covering the camp
• Cold storage facility
• Dental clinic
• Fire station
• Post exchange
• Prisoner guardhouse
• Showers and laundry facilities with hot and cold running
• Soccer field
• Post office
• Utility area
• Watch towers with searchlights
• Double chain link fences – ten feet high and eight feet
The POW camps were elaborate and well-constructed. Many Americans considered them too grand for the POWs. It was said the many American communities referred to the camps outside of town as The Fritz Ritz.
All POW camps were isolated and as heavily guarded as possible.
Thus, two-thirds of the camps, holding about three-fourths of the prisoners were located in the southern and southwestern regions of the United States. The rest of the camps were built throughout the eastern and western regions of the country.
America Enters the POW Business 25 By July of 1944 there were ninety-eight POW base camps across America. By the end of the War, this number had risen to 155 base camps