German POWs in North America


From the moment the prisoners arrived in the United States, both captors and captives knew that there would have to be daily diversions and an eventual program of work projects to occupy the prisoners' time. Psychologically, the incoming POWs displayed a universal problem. Unless men are put to work by their captors or otherwise occupied, a variety of explosive symptoms will rapidly appear. The prisoner soon finds himself at a loss to occupy his endless days and begins to dwell on his fate and the circumstances which brought it about. Time becomes leaden in confinement, and memoirs of imprisoned people are filled with the limitless devices which are created to break the monotony. Prisoners carve chess pieces out of soap; others juggle mathematical tables in their minds, make handicrafts out of available material, or bet on cockroach races; and some simply lose their sanity.

When no systematic work projects are available, the unoccupied prisoner develops a well-documented syndrome which sees his raging frustration channelled into emotional depression and deep despondency. He sees himself as the "forgotten man," abandoned by his country and despised by his captors. He becomes alternately withdrawn or surly and complaining. The captured soldier, however, has an additional option not available to civilian internees or convicted criminals. He has built up in himself, through training and experience, the frame of mind necessary to make it possible to tolerate the rigors of combat and aggression. One of the final alternatives to the unoccupied soldier, therefore, is the use of deep-seated aggression, and in a POW camp, that reason for existence may take the form of escapes, kangaroo courts, or sabotage. From the prisoners' point of view, therefore, if there had been no work available, to paraphrase the proverb, it would have been necessary to invent it. As it happened, however, the War Department had already authorized a wide selection of recreational camp activities and was hard at work creating the guidelines for a nationwide labor program to be implemented in the very near future.

Camp activities were generally left to the discretion of the camp commanders, but ultimately they depended on the enthusiasm and variety of talents of the prisoners themselves. Sports were the most popular pastime, especially the invariable soccer matches found in every POW camp. Any family out for a Sunday drive along U.S. Highway 6 near Atlanta, Nebraska, for example, could stop to watch the POWs enthusiastically kicking a soccer ball across the field, while hundreds of wildly cheering fellow POWs supported their favorite team. At Camp Opelika, Alabama, Alfred Klein recalls that:

Sports started right after breakfast, and our camp had a whole slate of outstanding teams in soccer, handball, volleyball, etc. Athletic activities were taken very, very seriously. The Camp Championships, especially in soccer and handball, were so exciting that even our guards participated as cheerleaders from their towers and attended the games on weekends with their families shouting from the sidelines. Many of our athletes, as a matter of fact, went on to sports careers in Germany after their release.

Next to sports, the most popular pastime was the production of plays and theatrical performances. Every camp had a makeshift theater, usually at one end of the mess hall, in which the POWs performed everything from uproariously funny skits with burly men cavorting about in women's clothing to highly sophisticated three-act plays complete with props and orchestration. When a reporter from the Kansas City Star toured Camp Trinidad, Colorado, he was escorted by the commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lambert B. Cain, to a front row seat for a recital of Goethe's "Faust"-a performance complete with the strains of cathedral music and chorals, and the pealing of chimes-all from a recording. A crudely built electrical system, fashioned from tin cans, controlled the lighting fixtures. Ceiling light fixtures were made by using inverted glass jars. Any Friday or Saturday night, the prisoners at any large POW camp would have been treated to a theatrical performance of some sort; laughing at a little skit set in a French cafe; hooting and wolf-whistling at a group of hairy and muscular men in Polynesian grass skirts; or listening in rapt attention as Cyrano de Bergerac wooed lovely Roxanne from beneath her balcony. Although the performances were directed for the camp population at large, German officers and American camp administrators were always preferential guests, and the occasional visits by representatives of the War Department, Swiss Legation, YMCA, or International Red Cross were heralded by impressive evenings. In addition to skits and plays, the POWs were quick to organize choral groups, and a prisoner Music Committee in each camp went about recruit-ing talented musicians from among the inmates to form a camp orchestra. Instruments ranging from violins to drum outfits were purchased out of profits from the prisoner-run camp canteen or received as gifts from the War Prisoners' Aid Committee of the YMCA. A representative list of the musical performances, submitted in a report by Colonel T. B. Birdsong, Command-ing Officer of POW Camp Shelby, Mississippi, as of August 31, 1944, was as follows:


Date Orchestra Musicians Location Audience
1-30-44 Piano 2 men Rec. Hall 90 men
2-13-44 Piano/Violin 2 men Rec. Hall 120 men
2-20-44 Piano/Violin 2 men Rec. Hall 180 men
2-27-44 Variety 6 men Mess Hall-F 250 men
3-05-44 Variety 7 men Rec. Hall 200 men
3-05-44 Variety 5 men Mess Hall-H 260 men
3-19-44 Co. E.F.G.H. 24 men Heidelberg Platz 500 men
3-26-44 Co. A & B 12 men Rec. Hall 200 men
4-09-44 Camp Orchestra 35 men Amphitheatre 1200 men
4-23-44 Camp Orchestra 34 men Tin Shop 380 men
5-01-44 Camp Choir 36 men Music Stand 1000 men
5-28-44 Camp Orchestra 32 men Amphitheatre 900 men
6-30-44 Co. F & G 16 men Music Stand 200 men
7-02-44 Dance Orchestra 14 men Music Stand 700 men
7-09-44 Brass Orchestra 20 men Hindenburg Platz 300 men
7-16-44 Small Orchestra 18 men Sports Area 800 men
7-16-44 Piano Solo 1 man Outside- Theatre 960 men
7-16-44 Co. A& B 10 men Mess Hafl-B 200 men
7-16-44 Dance Orchestra 9 men Hindenburg Platz 300 men
7-24-44 Small Orchestra 12 men Amphitheatre 800 men
7-30-44 Camp Orchestra 17 men Outside Theatre 960 men
8-13-44 Dance Orchestra 10 men Outside Theatre 960 men
8-20-44 Camp Orchestra 17 men Music Stand 380 men

It is a cultural schedule which would do justice to any large urban area, much less a camp community of 2,773 men! Moreover, these musical activities in no way exhausted the recreational alternatives available to the prisoners of war.

Every POW camp had a library of German and English books, donated by the War Prisoners' Aid Committee of the YMCA or purchased out of the camp canteen profits. The libraries ranged in size from a few dozen dogeared books at Angel Island POW Camp in San Francisco Bay to the substantial collection of more than 9,000 volumes at Camp Dermott, Arkansas. Each camp library also subscribed to several dozen copies of at least three newspapers; generally, The New York Times and two local papers. The POWs were initially skeptical about the facts they read concerning America's high productivity, domestic freedom, and war news. And the American camp personnel were initially skeptical also, although their concern centered on the vital military information which the pro-Nazi POWs might somehow signal back to Germany. By the spring of 1944, however, both sides had thoroughly relaxed and by all accounts generally accepted the truthfulness of the camp newspapers at face value. The POWs continued to be amazed at the openness of the news reports, a frankness that would serve as an early part of the "reeducation" program to follow. If nothing else, the newspapers were avidly sought by the prisoners as an aid to learning English. By the summer of 1944, the War Department felt comfortable enough with the newspaper program to authorize camp subscriptions for the New York based Neue Volkszeitung, an outspoken German-language paper, often critical of American policies.

In addition to the plays, musical performances, and library facilities, the larger POW camps maintained a film library, and movies were shown often.

Nearly every camp purchased its 16mm projector from its canteen profits during the spring of 1944 and showed a selection of eight to ten rented movies to the inmate population as often as 40 times a month. An average selection of rented films included six or seven American films, which were first previewed by the camp authorities and translated to the POW audience by an "approved" (anti-Nazi) prisoner, and one or two closely reviewed German films. Interestingly, the American films, and especially cartoons, were far more popular with the prisoners than the "sanitized" German films, and outdoor shows were often attended by as many as 1,000 men. In November, 1944, the Special War Problems Division of the State Department lifted these burdens from the shoulders of the individual camp administrators and issued a directive, listing 24 "acceptable" motion picture performances for all prisoner of war camps across the country. By 1945 the POWs were enjoying such evenings as:

Performance # 13: Sports:
"Tigers of the Deep"
"Pittsburgh: Steel Town"
"The Great Victor Herbert"
Performance #21: Cartoon:
"Andy Panda Goes Fishing"
"Fire, the Red Poacher"
"The Gentlemen from West Point"

As Hollywood produced a sufficient supply of anti-Nazi motion pictures through 1944 and 1945, the prisoners began to receive a steady diet of such films as "The Seventh Cross," "The Moon is Down," "Watch on the Rhine," and "Tomorrow, the World." Those prisoners who showed a particular spark of enthusiasm for what' was in essence a reeducation program were treated to the Office of War Information's "Why We Fight" series. In any case, motion pictures formed a substantial diversion for the German prisoners.

Of equal importance, both as a diversion and later as an instrument in the reeducation program, was the publication of camp newspapers. The War Department had come to the realization, early in the POW experience, that the publication of such camp papers would not only occupy the men but might serve in other ways. They were an excellent means of transmitting information to the prisoners-changes of regulations, upcoming events, even war news-if they did not serve to increase prisoner resistance. At the same time, the papers could be monitored by the authorities as an accurate barometer of the prisoners' mood and morale. Moreover, once the reeducation program got underway, these papers would serve as an experiment in democracy which allowed the inmates to write anything they pleased without fear of censorship or retaliation. Within a very short time, every camp in the country began publishing its own newspaper. Camp Shelby put out the Mississippi Post; Camp Carson, Colorado, Die P W Woche (The P W Weekly); Camp Campbell, Kentucky, Der Europaer (The European); Camp Crossville, Tennessee, Die Briicke (The Bridge); Camp Houlton, Maine, Der Wachter (The Watchman); and so forth. Camp Maxey's (Texas) literary minded prisoners published no less than three newspapers: Echo, Der Texas Horchposten (The Texas Listening Post), and Deutsche Stimme (The German Voice). Written entirely by the prisoners and mimeographed on the camp machine, these papers were surprisingly sophisticated, carrying such things as poetry and short stories; crossword puzzles and word games; a weekly calendar of events; sports news; announcements of plays, concerts, and films; technical articles ranging from anatomy to photography; clever cartoons and comic strips; and, finally, a page of classified ads. They were remarkable efforts by the prisoners, an outlet for talent which might easily have been directed toward less acceptable channels and a continuous diversion for men behind barbed wire.

In addition to these recreational programs, every large camp, and the majority of the smaller ones, allocated several large rooms in the camp's warehouse or utility building for use as a craft center. At Camp Shelby, Mississippi, for example, the craft center was used by the prisoners for woodcraft, metalcraft, leathercraft, papercraft, painting, and drawing. Those prisoners who wanted to sell their handicraft articles were able to do so through the post exchange, and periodically the men organized a camp exhibition with prizes drawn from the canteen fund. Many of these camp sales and exhibitions at Camp Holabird, Maryland, Fort Du Pont, Delaware, and Camp Como, Mississippi, for instance, became local social events for the civilians in nearby communities. Every camp also had a recreation room complete with several ping-pong tables, a dozen chess boards, packs of playing cards, bingo sets and an inevitable phonograph. Camp Campbell's (Kentucky) recreation room boasted a collection of 50 phonograph records ranging from "Home on the Range," "Missouri Waltz," and "Whistling Cowboy," to "Tuxedo Junction," "Friendly Tavern Polka," and "Can't Get Indiana Off My Mind." The most popular record at Campbell, as well as at nearly every other camp, was Bing Crosby's "Don't Fence Me In." Most of these recreational items, as well as the handicraft tools, were either donated by the German Red Cross, the National Catholic Welfare Council, the War Prisoners' Aid Committee of the YMCA or purchased out of the camp's canteen fund. These recreation rooms were enormously popular with the young Germans, especially those for whom the other activities held little attraction.

The most interesting and far-reaching camp program was its educational curriculum. The question of classroom facilities was first raised by the inmates themselves almost immediately after arriving in camp. The camp authorities saw no reason to prevent the men from studying, especially since English was the subject most eagerly sought, and after receiving the authorization from the War Department, they set up classes in every camp. Since a large number of the prisoners had been civilian teachers, carpenters, watchmakers, lawyers, mechanics, bank clerks, and the like, the POW camps had a large reservoir of talent upon which they could draw to teach the classes. The prisoners elected a Study Leader, who was responsible for establishing the camp's educational curriculum, and by the end of 1943, literally every large camp in America boasted courses in English, Spanish, German literature, shorthand, commerce, chemistry, and mathematics. As faculty made themselves available, camps were able to offer unique courses to their populations. At Camp Clinton, Mississippi, for instance, prisoners were offered courses in the history of the American Indians, Chinese culture, and the plants of the United States. At Camp Crossville, Tennessee, POWs were given piano lessons, and at Camp Campbell, Kentucky, they could even take a course on the symbolism of the American Funnies. Reinhold Pabel recalls:

At Camp Ellis, Illinois, I decided to take full advantage of the educational facilities which were provided.

I got together with some other linguistically inclined men for small classes in foreign languages. Among others, we purchased a Persian Linguaphone Course and learned enough to be able to read and listen to excerpts from the Rubaiyat in the original. I concentrated my efforts finally on Russian and completed two correspondence courses in that language with the University of Chicago Extension Division. Sometime later, I conducted two Russian courses for beginners for my fellow prisoners, making up my lessons myself and mimeographing them for class use.

With Teutonic thoroughness, the camp courses demanded continued attendance, the students took notes and participated in classroom discussions, and examinations were followed by final grades.

So successful were these courses, and so technically competent, that on May 19, 1944, the Reich Ministry of Education offered full high school and University credit for courses taken by German prisoners in the United States. In a 12-page edict, transmitted through the auspices of the German Red Cross, POWs were informed that 15 major German and Austrian universities, from the Universities of Bonn, Berlin, and Kiel, to the Polytechnic Institutes of Danzig, Dresden, and Graz, would accept their grades at face value. The Reiclisminister detailed the process by which the POWs could obtain any of the five successive academic or vocational degrees, including instructions on the number of faculty members on each type of examination board. While Germany's Eastern Front lay in shambles and the Allies poised for the most massive invasion in the history of the world against Normandy, the German Reich took the time to supply their POWs with official booklets to note their educational progress in the United States! Issued by no less an authority than the Armed Forces High Command (OKW), the 40-page Studiennachweis fir Kriegsgefangene (Evidence of Study for War Prisoners) booklet described the German grading system and demanded that each POW professor authenticate the course and grade for each POW student. These booklets were to serve as certified transcripts and were, in fact, accepted by German universities at face value.

If the prisoners found that their camp "universities" failed to offer courses in a particular subject, however, they had an additional option. The Office of the Provost Marshal arranged to allow prisoners whose camps were located near American universities to take extension courses! Thus, POWs at Houlton, Maine, took extension and correspondence courses through the University of Maine; at Camp Pine, New York, through Syracuse University; at Meade, Maryland, they took courses through Johns Hopkins; at McCoy, Wisconsin, from the University of Wisconsin; and across the United States, the German prisoners studied at 103 different universities and technical colleges.

As a result of these educational opportunities, no small number of men in American camps graduated from German universities after finishing part of their undergraduate work at such institutions as "The University of Blanding, Florida," "The University of Como, Mississippi," or "The University of Polk, Louisiana," Alfred Klein, for example, returned to Germany where he remained in the service, rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and is, at present, head of the Air Warfare Department at the German Air Force Academy (Fiirstenfeldbruck)- thanks, in part, to his wartime education. A former Afrika Korps officer and prisoner at Camp Trinidad, Colorado, the aristocratic Freiherr Rudiger von Wechmar studied journalism at the University of Minnesota. As a direct result of these studies, states Baron Wechmar, he had little difficulty in landing post-war employment, first as a reporter with the German News Agency in Hamburg, and later as the chief of Bureau of the United Press in Bonn. Another former POW, Heinrich Matthias, went on to become a prosperous banker in Germany; Dr. Karl Janish rose to become a Justice of the Austrian Supreme Court; Walter Horst Littman became a Senior Chemist in the German Department of Defense. All gratefully acknowledge their POW training, as do hundreds of others. While there is no way of knowing how many POWs became dedicated fans of the Michigan Wolverines, the Wisconsin Badgers, or the Texas Longhorns, many prisoners of war returned to Germany with a substantially improved education.

... Read part 2 of this feature

Compiled by Glenn A. Sytko