After the United States entered World War II in 1941, the government of the United Kingdom requested American help with housing prisoners of war (POWs) due to a housing shortage in Britain. Although it was not prepared, the United States agreed to house them and provide logistical considerations such as food, medical care and clothing.
From 1942 to 1946, the United States swarmed with captured enemy troops. More than 400,000 German soldiers and officers were held in more than 500 POW camps throughout the nation. Many of the early of these were from General Rommel’s elite “Afrika Korps” that were captured in the deserts of North Africa. About 50,000 Italian and 5,000 Japanese also were prisoners here — most of the Japanese prisoners of war were housed in camps in Australia.
Louisiana had about 20,000 prisoners housed in almost 50 camps. Primary responsibility for the POWs were major military installations such as Camps Claiborne, Livingston and Polk, and the New Orleans Port of Embarkation also known as Camp Plauche. Another base camp was Camp Ruston near Grambling which could house more than 4,000 prisoners — it was one of the largest POW camps in the United States. Actually, many of the prisoners were held in small “side” camps. These were established near small towns or communities where there was a need for manpower to meet severe labor shortages in agriculture, forestry and local businesses.
The United States agreed to follow the provisions of the International 1929 Geneva Conventions in its handling of prisoners of war. Each enlisted prisoner was granted space roughly equivalent to that enjoyed by a U.S. Army soldier — while officers enjoyed larger quarters and were not required to work.
If required to work, POWs had to be paid the same rate as an Army enlisted person. They were paid in script and could earn 80 cents per day, which could be used to buy provisions in the camp canteen. The farmer or business using the labor had to pay the government 45 cents an hour per laborer to cover the cost of the POW program. The funds to the POW accumulated from their labor were held for them in bank accounts created in their name. When released at the end of the war, the funds were provided to them — so they could leave with several hundred dollars that helped stimulate Germany’s post-war economy.
There was one significant exception to the adherence to the Geneva Conventions. In 1944, the U.S. Navy came upon the disabled German submarine (U-505) off the coast of Africa. The American crew boarded the enemy warship and managed to capture the now famous Enigma machine — the super secret German military encoding device. To keep this secret, the German crew was housed at Camp Ruston and kept completely isolated for the remainder of the war — no mail in, no mail out, complete censorship and separate quarters.
POWs subsisted on the same rations as American soldiers. Enlisted men were permitted to buy beer in the camp canteen, while officers enjoyed wine. Many POWs wrote home that they ate better than in the German army. The perks did not end there. German officers organized and managed the camp prisoners, providing discipline and organization. Prisoners could, however, appoint representatives to take part in some decision-making with their jailers or to file complaints with the camp commander. Ardent Nazis tended to disrupt camp life and typically were removed and sent to a camp more prepared to handle them.
Prisoners also were provided recreational facilities, religious services and hobby and sports equipment, as well as theaters for plays and movies. Musical instruments, books and magazines were supplied, as well as printing equipment for the production of camp newspapers. Competent instructors from within their own ranks taught secondary school and college classes in languages, math, business chemistry, history, geography and art. The POWs could even take correspondence courses from American universities. Detainees could send and receive letters and packages, subject to approval of military censors.
The POWs were not allowed to wear their uniforms. They were provided work clothes like those issued to American soldiers but with PW painted on the back of shirts and pants.
While living conditions were relatively good, enlisted POWs were expected to work. Many labored for local farmers or forestry businesses. The Army quickly learned most of the detainees were of little threat to the local communities and generally worked hard for the benefits they obtained.
Side camps were established near farms or other locations labor was needed and the prisoners tended to be assimilated into those communities. For many Americans, they linked the German soldiers to their own boys in uniform and this led to fraternization with the prisoners. Understanding this, the War Department did not follow the example of other countries and refused to parole the Germans into the custody of American employers.
Working together, however, friendships did develop and numerous stories of these relationships were told. Many side camps were established in South Louisiana to provide farm labor for the sugar cane industry. Camps in north Louisiana more typically supported cotton farmers or forestry businesses. One guard remembers falling asleep while guarding some POWs visiting a dentist in downtown Thibodaux. “The prisoners picked up my rifle and woke me up before I got into trouble,” he said.
At a rice mill in Kaplan, the manager who was in charge of transporting the POWs left early and forgot to make arrangements for returning the prisoners to their camp. The bookkeeper, named Lillian, finally realized that she was the last one available to take them back to the camp. After they were loaded on the back of the truck, she drove it across town to the camp. She was met with guards and rifles and tried to explain the situation. She commented that the guards were more difficult to handle than the prisoners.
A grateful farmer in St. Martinville reportedly treated the prisoners to steak dinners in a nightclub, even though it was strictly against the rules, because they had worked so hard. Supposedly, the conditions were so relaxed in Gueydan that some of the guards put one of the POWs on guard duty with a machine gun in a watchtower so they could go enjoy the Christmas party.
One of the ironies of the time was that although POWs could enter and be served in restaurants, a black military soldier accompanying them was not allowed to enter except by the back door. In major camps like Claiborne, Italian and German prisoners were given the right to move throughout the entire camp while black soldiers stationed there were restricted to their segregated area.
Many of the farmers and their families grew close with the POWs and kept in contact through correspondence and exchanging gifts. Some have returned for visits with their families for a reunion years after the war. Some even were allowed to remain in the United States.
Soldiers are taught that one responsibility if captured is to try to escape. Although security in many of the side camps was lax, relatively few POWs tried to escape, most of those were captured within the day. They quickly learned there was little likelihood of returning to the German army — where do you go?
Soldiers died in POW camps for various reasons. They were given military funerals in accordance with international protocols. In such an instance at Camp Ruston, no German flag was available to drape over the coffin. A female civilian employee sewed a Nazi flag for the funeral. At the close of the war, the POW bodies were exhumed and returned to their home country for burial.
In 1946, the POWs were repatriated to their native countries. Many, however, did not go directly home for fear in “dumping” all of these trained soldiers into their defeated countries. These were kept up to two additional years in camps in England, Belgium and France before being repatriated. Interviews indicated that for many, those two years at the hands of their European holders were much worse than their experiences in the United States.
Although some Americans believed the prisoners were “coddled” in POW camps, what was considered as “firm but fair” treatment resulted in numerous benefits. Economically it made sense. Initially, one guard was expected to be needed for every 10 prisoners, but with fair treatment only one guard was needed for 30 prisoners. In 1944 alone, payment from users of prisoners totaled $22 million and it was estimated that $80 million had been saved by using prisoners in military installations. The use of prisoners to work on farms and businesses was a tremendous boom to the economy during the war years when there was a huge labor shortage.
Fair treatment also resulted in good will. POWs learned to respect the United States for the decent treatment they received. When prisoners at one camp were shown a newsreel about the atrocities to American troops in Germany, they were so distraught that they piled their German uniforms and burned them. It was POWs that became ambassadors for the United States when they returned to their home countries following the war. P
(Jim Barnett is emeritus scientist for the U.S. Forest Service.)