As the wartime labor shortage intensified across rural America, farmers turned to an unexpected source for replacement farmhands – captured German and Italian prisoners of war.
England had begun taking German soldiers prisoner in North Africa as early as 1941. But they didn’t really have room or the resources to care for them on their embattled island. So, in 1942, the British asked their new ally, the United States, to take over care for some of the prisoners of war. The first shipment of 50,000 POWs made the long sea voyage to America shortly thereafter.
Before the war was over, 425,871 POWs from Germany, Italy, Japan and a handful of other Axis countries were held on American soil. Most of the 511 camps were built in the South and Southwest of the U.S. where warm weather kept operational costs down. But the Midwest and Great Plains had their share of POW camps as well. Almost all of the camps were in rural areas because they had to be built well away from defense industry plants. War leaders were afraid of sabotage from the POWs.
In Nebraska, about 12,000 POWs were held in main base camps near Scottsbluff, Fort Robinson, and the village of Atlanta outside Holdrege. At first, the POW camps were met with a mixture of fear and fascination. No one in the small rural communities nearby knew whether or not the POWs would be dangerous, yet the millions of dollars it cost to build and supply the camps were a boom to the local economies. Soon, it became evident that few of the POWs were interested in trying to escape or wreak havoc. After all, they had just endured capture, processing, a 24-day voyage on a cargo ship and long train ride to get to the POW camp. They probably realized how hard it would be to get back to Europe.
In addition, the farmers around the camp were struggling to complete their farm work, and they could see these thousands of idle, apparently docile men sitting in the camps. Pretty soon military authorities set up systems to allow the POWs to work in civilian jobs, as long as the jobs weren’t dangerous or related to the war effort. Farming was a good fit.
In Nebraska, smaller satellite POW camps set up at Alma, Bayard, Bertrand, Bridgeport, Elwood, Fort Crook, Franklin, Grand Island, Hastings, Hebron, Indianola, Kearney, Lexington, Lyman, Mitchell, Morrill, Ogallala, Palisade, Sidney, and Weeping Water. Altogether there were 23 large and small camps scattered across the state.
Those prisoners who chose to and were approved by the authorities were allowed to leave the camps to work on farms. In the evening they were transported back to base. According to the Geneva Convention on POWs, they were paid for their work – usually somewhat less than an American might have made, but much more than they earned sitting in the camp.
The camp commanders and guards were usually careful to observe the Geneva Conventions because they wanted the Germans to do the same for U.S. POWs. Sometimes that was hard. For instance, one article of the convention says that prisoners shouldn’t be subjected to gawking from civilians. A camp commander in North Dakota had to ask the city to close traffic on an adjoining street because hundreds of young people and motorists were causing traffic jams so they could see the POWs.
Kelly Holthus (left) admits that, as a 10-year old, he was one of the “gawkers.” “They established a [small] base camp in this little town of Bertrand, right on Main Street,” Kelly says. “We were all pretty big-eyed. And we’d sit on the corner and watch the prisoners as they would walk around… It just brought the war closer to us.”
The farm labor that the prisoners were able to accomplish was important to farmers across the country. In south Texas, for example, one local county agent said that without POW labor, the entire cotton crop across south Texas would have been lost in 1943.
For the most part, the POWs found life in the camps tolerable. Most found clean barracks, good health care, canteens full of consumer goods not seen in Europe in years and food so plentiful that some wrote back to their families to stop sending gift packages to them.
Very few POWs tried to escape. Of the 425,000 prisoners, only 2,222 tried to leave their camps.
Freddie Oglesby (right) met one of the escapees when she was tending bar in York, Nebraska. One man came in and wouldn’t say anything. He just pointed at a beer. Freddie got him a beer and “everything he wanted … because it scared me.” Eventually, her boss came back from an errand, and they got a man in town who spoke fluent German to talk to the strange man. He admitted he was a POW from Fort Robinson, 375 miles northwest of York. “He very willingly went back. He probably had better treatment there than he did anywhere else.”
At the end of the war, only 17 German and Italian escaped prisoners were still at large. The FBI had captured 11 of these by 1951, and the last one surrendered in 1985. The rest of the prisoners were sent back to their home countries by 1946.
At least one German POW decided he wanted to return to the place of his imprisonment. William Oberdieck had been a POW at the Atlanta Camp in the middle of Nebraska. As the war drug on, he got a job 200 miles away in the apple orchards at Nebraska City. After the war, he returned to Nebraska and worked for the Kimmel Orchard. He became an American citizen and eventually bought the company.