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 Am