Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Enemy Among Us

My dad remembers cherry picking with a friend and his immigrant parents during the days of World War II in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. The orchard had a U-Pick arrangement, but too many cherries were left on the trees, and prisoners of war picked up the slack. The friend’s father enjoyed the chance to speak his native German with the half dozen young men eating their lunch of dry bread and water.
Nearly a half million prisoners of war spent time in the United States during World War II. Prison camps were established at existing military bases, abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camps, and other facilities. Wisconsin hosted thousands of them. Germans made up the vast majority of prisoners, known as PWs. They stayed at base camps and seasonal branch camps located predominantly in rural areas where they kept a low profile.

German prisoner of war camp with tents and fencing surrounding the area.

Others had barracks. German prisoners of war line up 
for inspection before going to work at a local cannery.

Government officials worried that local communities would object to having the enemy in their midst, and the media cooperated with minimal coverage. For the most part, the German PWs were welcome in Wisconsin, where one third of residents claimed German ancestry.
Civilians were warned against fraternizing with the prisoners. After all, until recently they were, according to one newspaper, “killing our boys in Normandy.” The proper attitude to take was to ignore them. Many prisoners had relatives in Wisconsin, however, and many camps allowed visits once a month. Fences surrounding the camps, ostensibly to keep prisoners in, served to keep out sight-seers and unwanted visitors. Teenage girls especially tried to sneak in, causing camp commanders the biggest problem. On the other hand, the townspeople were encouraged to extend hospitality to the guards.
The Germans were welcome because they filled the critical agricultural labor shortages resulting from the draft or from people migrating to better paying industrial jobs. With seasonal workers impossible to find, the PWs saved the crops. They harvested beans, peas, tomatoes, berries, cherries, apples, cabbage, beets, cranberries, oats, and hay. They worked in canneries, dairies, state forest nurseries, tanneries, and a fox farm. They received eighty cents a day, earning about nineteen dollars a month, while an American enlisted man started at twenty-one dollars a month.

Three German prisoners of war are scrubbing their clothes on the 
cement floor of their barracks at a prisoner of war camp.

Security among the different work places varied widely. Sometimes guards rode along to work, sometimes not. Guards with sub-machine guns watched the prisoners at a canning factory. At others, guards might not be present and then with only a sidearm. One guard at a dairy co-op routinely lay down his rifle and took a nap, counting on the PWs to wake him if an officer showed up. The military adopted a “calculated risk” policy, allowing individual farmers to pick up a hired hand or two for the day with no security at all. Civilians and PWs worked side by side in some establishments, the only difference being the PW painted on the prisoners’ clothing.
The Geneva Convention required prisoners to be fed and housed equal to the host country’s military. The American government complied, hoping their good treatment of prisoners would be reciprocated. The meat served included less desirable cuts, like carp, pickled herring, and liver. With the end of the war and release of American prisoners, the quality and quantity of food declined. Farmers often invited their PW workers to eat with the family and hired help, believing their sack lunches of a marmalade sandwich or black bread and lard sandwich to be insufficient for the hard work on the farm. The home-cooked meals were much appreciated.
Eating sweet corn was unheard of in Germany. Corn was for pigs. When served corn, the PWs refused to eat it until an American would heartily dig in. One by one, the prisoners would try it, and then they couldn’t get enough and asked for seed to take back to Germany.
Whenever the Germans marched from the train to the camps, or from camp to a work place, they sang, as opposed to the Americans calling out cadence. Some locals criticized that practice, claiming the Nazis wouldn’t treat American prisoners as well. Others enjoyed hearing the singing, and often loitered outside the camps to hear them sing during free periods. Towns would be polarized over their “guests” and reporters were invited to tour the camps to see that the prisoners were not being coddled.

A work shift of German prisoners at a prisoner of war camp marching 
to trucks to be conveyed to work at a local cannery.

Most of the prisoners were conscripts who didn’t necessarily know why they were fighting. Ranging in age from fifteen to sixty-three, they looked forward to work details and were easy to get along with. Those who arrived in the U.S. through New York were surprised to be greeted by the Statute of Liberty. They’d been told the Luftwaffe had bombed New York City and Washington.
A minority were hard-core Nazis, usually captured in North Africa from Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps. Still arrogant and believing they would win the war, they admonished their countrymen to resist cooperating, even killing some. They upbraided German Americans for not rising to the defense of the Fatherland. The military removed these men from the regular prisoners.
Many prisoners wanted to stay in the United States, but that wasn’t allowed. After they returned to Germany, several stayed in touch with their American friends and came back to visit, and some were sponsored to immigrate.
Do you know if prisoners were housed in your area?

My main source was Cowley, Betty.  Stalag Wisconsin: Inside WWII Prisoner-of-War Camps. Oregon, WI: Badger Books Inc., 2002.
Photos from the Wisconsin Historical Society.


  1. There were surprisingly a lot of Italian POW's here in Australia. They tended to be out near farming settlements. The Italians were given quite a bit of freedom to help out on the farms. For the most part it was a comfortable arrangement.

    1. Mary, I didn't realize POWs were taken as far as Australia. Escapees would have had a hard time getting back home!

  2. Here in NH German POWs were housed a couple of hours north of me. Not much remains of the camp - just a stone foundation from the one of the guard towers and part of a fireplace. The prisoners logged the local forests.

    1. Logging is hard work, but they probably liked that better than being shot at in battle.

  3. I didn't know if Michigan had any camps, but this was so interesting that I had to check. It turns out there were four POW camps in the Upper Peninsula and one in the Lower Peninsula. They resembled the Wisconsin camps in the type of prisoners and what they did there. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Terri.

    1. Many states housed prisoners, but I think a lot of that's been forgotten. I would like to know what our friend and the prisoners talked about!

  4. Like Peggy, I had to look up and see whether TX housed any POWs and sure enough, we had more here than any other state, thanks to our size. Also, the Geneva convention said prisoners had to be housed in a climate similar to where they were caught, so I guess a majority of ours were caught in North Africa. I learned the camps were often referred to as the Fritz Ritz. Lots of other interesting stuff, too! Thanks, Terri!

  5. This is a very interesting post, Terri. Thank you! My former boss was an American Japanese Patent Attorney and his grandparents, maybe parents, were interned in a camp. Both immigrants and American-born Japanese were considered a threat after Pearl Harbor was bombed. These weren't people directly involved in the war, so they were very confused and hurt, many losing jobs, homes, and the property they owned. After the war, most of them had to start over.

    1. Oops! Forgot to mention these camps were in Western Washington.

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