German WW II POWs In the U.S.

By Ralph Stone
Monday April 18, 2011 - 01:37:00 PM

I just finished "A Brother's Blood" by Michael C. White. The novel is set in Maine where German prisoners of war (POWs) were detained during World War II. The novel begins many decades after the war when Wolfgang Kallick arrives in Maine from Germany to find out the details of his brother Dieter's death at the camp. The book is loosely based on the POW camp at Seboomook, Maine where, because of the increased shortage of paper, Great Northern Paper Company had an arrangement with the U.S. Army for a POW camp and initially 250 prisoners from General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, the German elite, were brought to cut pulp wood and yard it with horses. You will have to read the book to discover the mystery surrounding Dieter Kallick's death.  

The novel did spark my interest in a little-known chapter in twentieth-century history. That is, by 1945 there were 425,000 German prisoners of war living in about 700 camps in 46 states throughout the United States. Nine of them were located in California, one at Camp Angel Island. Camp Ono in San Bernardino held Italian prisoners. About 860 German POWs died during captivity and remain buried in 43 sites across the United States, with graves often tended by local German Women's Clubs.  

During World War I, a relatively small number of POWs reached the U.S. and were located at Forts McPherson and Oglethorpe in Georgia and Fort Douglas in Utah. After the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, the United Kingdom asked the U.S. to house some German prisoners due to a housing shortage in Britain. The U.S. agreed. But we were initially unprepared logistically to meet the requirements of providing food, clothing, and housing. The U.S. was also wary of having German prisoners on American soil because of perceived security problems and possible fear among the civilian populace. Fore these reasons, media coverage of the camps was intentionally limited not only because of the Geneva Convention but also not to scare the populace near the camps.  

More than 150,000 men arrived after the surrender of Gen. Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps in April 1943, followed by an average of 20,000 new POWs a month. 

Under the Geneva Convention POWs could work but only if they were paid for their labor. Millions of U,S. men and women were fighting overseas, leaving a resulting shortage of labor so POW workers became welcome laborers. Ironically, by working, the POWs helped the Allied war effort. In "A Brother's Blood," the POWs worked for lumber companies cutting pulp wood and hauling the wood with horses. 

Internment camps for German POWs were often dominated by Nazi enforcers, who killed as many as 150 of their fellow prisoners during World War II. Only seven were officially considered murder. Even the smallest infraction could put German prisoners at risk. Those who talked to guards, spoke English, or refused to parrot the Nazi line were often beaten or killed. American camp officials generally looked the other way because they appreciated the discipline and order that the Nazis provided in the camps. Prisoners who were not ethnically German and had been conscripted into service were in particular danger from their fellow prisoners. Eventually, American officials began separating the Nazis from the anti-Nazi Germans. In White's book, Oswald, a German prisoner, was put in charge of the horses and POWs because of his experience working with horses on a farm. Mysteriously, a tree fell on him causing him tremendous pain and ultimately death. The nazis in the camp were suspected of engineering the "accident" because he had become too cooperative with the Americans. 

Of the tens of thousands of POWs in the United States during World War II, only 2,222, less than 1 percent, tried to escape, and most were quickly rounded up. By 1946, all prisoners had been returned to their home countries. 

Remember, President Obama’s vow to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. This erupted into a furious debate about where to relocate the prisoners captured in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. And recently, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected providing funds to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba, saying that no community in America would want terrorism suspects in its backyard. Yet, during World War II, the U.S. housed, fed, and worked over 400,000 German POWs in 46 states with little or no risk to the populace.