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Post Ike and German POWs in WWII
Created by John Eipper on 09/01/14 4:37 AM

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Ike and German POWs in WWII (Randy Black, USA, 09/01/14 4:37 am)

Eugenio Battaglia's lament about the status of German POWs at the hands of President Eisenhower and the United States, while intriguing, is not "the whole story." Nor is it an accurate portrayal of what happened to hundreds of thousands of German and Italian POWs captured by the US and Britain during the war. Eugenio's portrayal is contrary to the fates of hundreds of thousands of other Italian and German POWs who surrendered to the Allies in North Africa.

The Afrika Korps, including more than three dozen Generals, was captured and housed in camps in North Africa for some weeks and eventually evacuated to the United States, where they lived out the remainder of the war in prisoner camps in relative comfort across the southern and western United States.

We have dozens of such remaining, preserved camps in Texas, including one in Princeton (TX), about 15 miles from where I write. Hundreds more are spotted across Central Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and elsewhere.

I speak of the more than 275,000 or so Italian and German POWs captured with Rommel's forces.

The reason for bringing them to the USA was that it was easier and less expensive to house and feed them on our home turf than to ship such supplies to North Africa as the US began to assemble the forces for the European battles and eventually D-Day. In short, the Allies needed all of their ships for the supplies they delivered to Europe going East. While our ships arrived in England and elsewhere full, they returned to the USA empty until someone arrived at the solution to return with Axis POWs.

The first Italian and German POW groups (nearly 300,000) arrived in Norfolk, Virginia on August 4, 1943. Many became residents of the more than 500 POW camps across the USA as far west at Oregon. Most were located across the South due to the lesser expense of heating during the winter than would have been the case in the American North. American POWs held in Germany did not enjoy such considerations.

After a short trip on what the German POWs labeled as modern passenger trains, many arrived at Camp Clinton, Mississippi, where more than ten dozen generals, colonels, majors and captains were eventually housed in group or private housing while the enlisted men lived in barracks. General Von Arnim, who replaced Rommel when Rommel was fired/retired by Hitler, even had a private home in Mississippi with a car and driver and was allowed into town to view movies in the local movie house and enjoy its air conditioning.

Thousands of Italian POWs lived first in Camp Como (Mississippi) and were guaranteed food, medical services, libraries, educations (English was the favorite choice) and athletic facilities per the Geneva Convention. The POWs were allowed to keep their military uniforms for ceremonial occasions but otherwise wore khakis with PW on the legs of the pants. Per the Geneva accords, officers were not forced to work. Enlisted men worked in various trades or picked cotton, chopped weeds and otherwise worked crops. Each was paid 80 cents per day, which paid for their cigarettes and incidentals.

The Nazis among the POWs, who were known as "true believers," were eventually separated from the regular German POWs after some of the Nazis harassed and or murdered the "less committed" German prisoners.

Some of this I know from history studies and books.

More importantly, part of this I know from interviews with a half-dozen former POWs whom I interviewed in Waldsassen, Germany in the 1970s, or in Texas a few years later when I followed up on the earlier project.

Waldsassen is a small, beautiful village of about 7,000 and borders the Czech Republic. When I was there in the mid-1970s, the nearby People's Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia was still protected from the West by a rather high, pyramid-shaped barbed wire fence that featured a large sign warning that it was charged with 10,000 volts. That seemed like a lot, but I did not risk that the claim might have been false.

I still have a photo of that sign that appeared at the end of a dirt path, which was at the end of a paved path through a forest, which was at the end paved road that was off the two-lane road from Waldsassen. Total distance was about two miles.

I always marveled at the electric fences that kept people in a nation rather than the way we try to unsuccessfully keep people out these days.

In any event, I spent an intriguing, interesting evening speaking with about six men who told me of their adventures in North Africa and of their capture.

One told me that when he was loaded onto the ships for America, he never expected to return to Germany. He lived first in Arkansas and later in Central Texas near West, Texas in relative comfort as contrasted to the American POWs in Germany. He was a mechanic and was offered work maintaining the harvesting machinery. I asked if he tried to escape. "How far could I get in Texas, not speaking much English and wearing funny clothes with PW on the material?" He added that some of his friends in the POW camp did not repatriate at the end of the war. By choice, they remained in Texas.

At the end of the evening, and after a few beers, one old soldier asked me how I felt speaking about such events. I remarked that I was "embarrassed" speaking about such matters of him and his colleagues living as POWs in my state about the time I was born.

He asked me how the word "embarrassed" was defined. I tried my best to explain the philosophical definition best I could. He spoke in German to his friends and came back with, "Ah, I understand. It is how I sometimes feel when I speak with a Jew."

That comment sticks with me to this day.

Sources include: http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/articles/233/german-prisoners-of-war-in-mississippi-1943-1946

JE comments: Eugenio Battaglia wrote mostly about the Axis POWs who were Soviet citizens, and how they were returned to face Stalin's wrath.

Randy Black sends a very appropriate posting for this 75th anniversary of WWII.  There was also a small contingent of German POWs in my home town of Louisiana, Missouri.  They were put to work in that region's numerous apple orchards.

It always seemed unfair that officer POWs are not required to do physical labor.  Shouldn't it be the other way around, as the enlisted personnel went to war because they had to, and not because they chose to?

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  • Axis POWs in US (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 09/01/14 1:40 PM)
    All fine with Randy Black (1 September); he is saying in fact what I already reported about my father as a POW in the USA, of the nice camps for the collaborators and of the harsh camps for the non-collaborators, but that it is another story as you very well say.

    JE comments: In the US we don't tend to think of enemies who come around to our way of thinking as "collaborators." The only label we have is for the other kind: the "unrepentant."

    On 2 February 2013, Eugenio wrote this interesting post on his father's experience as an Italian POW in the US:


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    • Italian POWs: Cooperators, Collaborators, and the Unrepentant (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 09/03/14 1:58 AM)
      Apparently the issue of POWs has interested many WAISers.

      Regarding the Italian POWs, after 8 September 1943 they were divided into cooperators, treated very well, and non-cooperators, who especially in the last months were treated harshly. There were also the smart ones, especially officers.

      These smart ones, perhaps less honest than the others, did not sign any declaration of cooperation but, rather skilfully, they signed a declaration in which they stated that they will obey any and all orders received by the "legal Italian government," which theoretically was correct.

      Which was the "legal Italian Government" is very debatable, but the American authorities assumed that it was the Badoglio/King government (the Italian republic--lay, democratic and antifascist--also of course has this position today), so the officers who signed such statement maintained the privileges of the cooperators but also had a mental reservation.

      The Italians are very good in the art of "arrangiarsi" (to manage), but I do not like it in this way.

      JE comments: David Pike has reprimanded me for this, but I still find it unfair that officer POWs should get better treatment than common soldiers--a vestige of the chivalric code, or am I reading too much Don Quixote?  Why, in modern times, should social class trump national enmity?

      The Italian "arrangiarsi" sounds like the Brazilian "dar um jeito."  A question for Mendo Henriques:  is the expression used in Portugal, too?

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  • Axis POWs in Wisconsin (Mike Bonnie, USA 09/01/14 5:00 PM)
    Randy Black (1 September) writes an interesting view of WWII prisoners of war in America. If he hasn't already read and is interested in further details, I suggest adding Stalag Wisconsin, by Betty Crowley (2002), to the reading list. Crowley, a retired educator, has exhaustively researched the circumstances and numbers of POWs held in camps around Wisconsin during WWII.

    Camp McCoy at Sparta housed the main body of captured troops. Camp McCoy at that time was an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps. (CCC) site, which my father helped to build. Thirty-eight "branch" camps scattered around the state opened and closed depending on demand and change of seasons. In large scale, Cowley states, "The incoming wave of prisoners arriving on our shores swelled to over 5,000 Japanese, 371,000 Germans, 51,000 Italians, as well as assorted Koreans, Russians and other nationalities. In fact, by late spring of 1944, the army already found itself handling more German and Italian prisoners then there had been American soldiers in the entire pre-war US Army." At the peak, Wisconsin housed nearly 3,500 Japanese, 5,000 Germans, and nearly 500 Koreans at Camp McCoy. In addition, Fort Sheridan (suburban Chicago, Illinois; closed in 1993) placed nearly 13,000 more POWs at the 38 "branch" camps.

    Crowley lists two reasons for housing POWs in the US. Until the US entered the war, "England stood alone in in Europe against Hitler and was bulging at the seams with German prisoners of war. Rumor spread that Hitler planned on air dropping weapons to several hundred thousand German troops held as prisoners in England, precluding the necessity of an invasion. So as plans advanced for the allied joint attack on North Africa, the US reluctantly agreed to take custody of all prisoners captured by Great Britain after November 1942."

    To imprison captive fighters overseas would require thousands of troops otherwise needed to fight in the war, to guard against escape and repatriation by opposing forces. Importing food, medical supplies and providing housing would all be required. Captured fighters were more easily sent to the US on empty supply ships.

    Captured fighters did not sit idle in the camps. While not required to work, many officers volunteered for work details. POWs helped fill the severe worker shortages brought on by the war, primarily in agriculture but also as cooks and on kitchen patrol (KP), in motor pools and maintenance, as interpreters, barbers, medical technicians, carpenters, welders and mechanics. According to Crowley, in some situations POWs received pay for their labor, 80 cents per day plus a 10 cent gratuity per day for personal needs. Paper currency issued to laborers for use at Canteens has numismatic value today.

    "Although required to return home to Germany, many returned and settled in Wisconsin. It's impossible to calculate the full effect the POW camps had on the cultural and economic well-being of our state. It's just as impossible to know exactly how the ripple effects from those camps go on today."


    Stalag Wisconsin is filled with details, stories, pictures, sketches and personal anecdotes of Camp McCoy residents and staff and of each of the 38 "branch" camps.


    JE comments:  Given its climate and landscape, as well as the German heritage of many of its residents, Wisconsin must have been a comfortable place for Germans to spend their POW captivity.  The Japanese probably didn't fare as well--especially given the dishonor of surrender in Japanese culture.

    A curiosity:  how did the Japanese and German POWs get along with each other?  I wonder if any books have been written on this.

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  • on Repatriating POWs in Europe and Asia (Bienvenido Macario, USA 09/02/14 5:19 AM)
    Happy Labor Day!

    I believe Eugenio Battaglia raised the issue of the millions of former USSR citizens (particularly Ukrainians) who fought for Nazi Germany and were condemned to death, when as POWs they were repatriated back to Stalin's brutal regime. This subject was not addressed by Randy Black's reply of 1 September. My question was why were those who collaborated with the Japanese treated differently from those who fought with Nazi Germany like the Ukrainians? Did the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have something to do with this leniency and over accommodation of oligarch-traitors?

    Attached is a 1943 photo of Brig. Gen. Manuel A. Roxas in US Army uniform sitting beside Col. Nobuhiko Jimbo of the Japanese Imperial Army. Later Manuel A. Roxas and other oligarch-traitors would manipulate the April 1946 referendum and circumvent the people's decision to go back to a Philippine Commonwealth. Nothing short of an independent and sovereign Philippines would save them from going back to prison.

    This is very relevant today. I for one applaud Pres. Obama's admission that the US does not have a plan on how to deal with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Remember in the 1980s, the US supported the Mujahideen fighting Soviet Russians occupying Afghanistan. One of them turned out to be Osama bin Laden.

    If the US launches an airstrike or drone strike on ISIS forces, we ought to consider the possibility of ISIS retaliating by attacking the US homeland through the porous border in the south. Obama is not running for re-election anyway.

    JE comments: Here is the photo:

    The United States is launching airstrikes on ISIS/IS.  Is there any chance of IS retaliating through the US border with Mexico?  I strongly doubt it--too much surveillance and security.  Any reprisals from IS would be on a target of opportunity, where it's least expected.

    Yesterday's 75th anniversary of WWII should carry an asterisk:  this refers to the war in Europe.  The Pacific war began with Japan's 1937 invasion of China, and the ensuing atrocities committed there.  It's possible even to trace the beginning back to Manchuria in 1931.

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    • Philippines in 1946: Commonwealth or Independence? (Francisco Ramirez, USA 09/03/14 2:20 AM)
      A question for Bienvenido Macario (2 September): Where is the evidence that the people of the Philippines had decided to go back to a (US) Commonwealth? You have repeatedly made this claim, and I wonder if there is something you know that I do not.

      What I do know is that after WWII, some of the collaborators were elected to the Senate in nation-wide elections, e.g. Laurel. So either the people were ignorant or did not see him as a collaborator who deserved to be imprisoned instead of in Congress.

      JE comments:  I share Francisco Ramírez's curiosity.
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  • September 17th, 1939; on German POWs (David Pike, -France 09/03/14 1:24 AM)

    WAIS, "the oldest on-line journal in the world," has another upcoming 75th anniversary to commemorate, that of the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland on September 17 under the terms of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The scene will live forever. At Brest-Litovsk, from the right bank of the River Bug, NKVD agents crossed the bridge to shake hands with the waiting Gestapo and hand over their mutual enemy, the German communist Margarete Buber-Neumann, who had fled for her life to the Soviet Union. She would live to write her memoirs, as survivor of both Gulag and Ravensbrück. On that same day at Brest-Litovsk, Wehrmacht and Soviet soldiers drank, laughed and drank together. WAIS might seize the occasion to present a few photos or even a video of this joyful event. One of the photos can be found in the book below. I remember being roundly told by communists in Paris that my photo was a fake.

    Randy Black (1 September) sent an interesting post on German prisoners of war in US hands and mentioned Rommel's African career as ending either in retirement or firement. He was certainly not fired, or retired. He was much too valuable to Hitler, who saved him from the debacle in Tunis by withdrawing him in time. He was given charge of the Atlantic Wall, and as a Generalfeldmarschall he held the privilege of a direct phone line to the Führer. This created a delicate situation in April 1944 when Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt was appointed Supreme Commander West, in command of two army groups: AG B in the north under Rommel, and AG G in the south under Generaloberst Blaskowitz. The photo below shows Rommel in the center and, to left and right, Blaskowitz and their superior von Rundstedt.

    Further to Randy's account of the German POWs in the United States, in my book Closing of the Second World War (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), I show to what extent Nazi elements were still able to exercise control over the German POW communities. Barry Sullivan, in Thresholds of Peace: German Prisoners and the People of Britain (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979), shows that some of these camps were, until the last day of the war, at the mercy of Nazi fanatics. Hans Filbinger, who later became the first Christian-Democrat Premier of the state of Baden-Wurtemberg, succeeded as a Nazi in imposing his will over those in opposition, even three weeks after the end of the war in Europe. As an officer of the Kriegsmarine in charge of the administration of a British camp for German POWs in Norway, he sentenced a German soldier to six months' imprisonment for having pulled his Nazi badges off his uniform and for calling his officers "Nazi dogs" (John Dornberg, International Herald Tribune, Paris, July 25, 1978).

    Finally, John Eipper suggested in the same post that officers went to war because they chose to, and other ranks because they had to. What army are we talking about? It must be officer-bashing day.

    JE comments:  This one is way too interesting to wait until September 17th!  Do I understand correctly that an anti-Nazi German POW was sentenced to prison after the war?

    I certainly meant to bash no officer.  I was merely trying to say that nobody is drafted into the officer corps, although this is an oversimplification:  in the US physicians (who become officers) have been drafted during wartime.

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    • Military Draft and the Officer Corps (David Duggan, USA 09/04/14 1:17 PM)
      Of course, in the United States, no one has been drafted into the officer corps, but the military does have a way of making an offer that the enlistee cannot refuse. (See JE's comments to David Pike, of 3 September.)

      A case in point is my father. After failing to pass the vision test to be a naval pilot (bad depth perception), he enlisted in the Marines in 1942. When the Marines lost a large number of second lieutenants at "bloody Tarawa," the commanders at LeJeune issued an "all-call" to those who had started college: if you stay as an enlisted man, you were in for the duration, but if you elect to pursue Officer Candidate School, you limited your commitment to five years. Who knew how long the Pacific conflict would last? The Navy was losing tons of ships every week, troops were being abandoned with little if any chance of rescue or re-supply. Door B looked real good. My father took that option, played service football at Great Lakes (Notre Dame's Frank Leahy was the coach), and suffered a wrist injury that prevented him from going ashore at Iwo Jima.

      On August 9, 1945, on the island of Maui, he was training to invade Japan after the bombers had softened the Shikoku beaches with the replenished nukes to be built at Los Alamos. Six months later he was in the reserves. He finished college, married my mother, started and finished law school, then was invited back to fulfill the remainder of his five-year commitment.

      He was sent to Newport, Rhode Island in the first class of Judge Advocate Generals to learn the new Uniform Code of Military Justice (I'm told that the Marines had formerly relied on Navy JAGs). I came along three months later and in early 1952, Congress passed a law allowing those in my father's situation to be honorably discharged after 4-1/2 years. He extended his service to witness an atomic bomb detonated in April 1952. All in all, probably not a bad choice.

      The different treatment accorded officer POWs as against enlisted POWs may have its roots in medieval chivalry. Officers, invariably drawn from the nobility, had "ransom value," and so if captured, it would behoove their captors to keep them in better straits than enlistees. RAF officers, perhaps the closest modern equivalent to an armored knight, also had a special duty to try to escape. A rational jailer could conclude that a well-cared for officer had less incentive to escape (and therefore divert the scarce resources devoted to war efforts to recapturing the escapees).

      (This special duty is not enshrined in the Code of the US Fighting Force: the duty to escape is imposed on all, but the chain of command is still observed in captivity. Presumably an officer could countermand an enlistee's escape plans as too risky or likely to cause the captors to inflict substitutionary punishment if successful.)

      Medieval chivalry had its limits: when Henry V's forces took thousands of French knights prisoner after Agincourt, because they were too numerous to take back to England for ransom, he gave orders to kill them. Some were herded into a barn, which was put to the torch. Because some English knights refused to obey so non-chivalrous an order, estimates of the number of prisoners killed vary from fewer than 100 to several thousand.

      Are the IS beheadings any more reprehensible particularly when there is no monetary component to these executions? To a Muslim, any non-Muslim is both a temporal and spiritual enemy. A Western journalist captured on the battlefield, even if not a partisan, deserves death on two levels: by not advancing Islamic goals in a war between Islam and the infidel, and by refusing to convert. A Christian journalist honors his faith and his craft by accepting this death.

      JE comments: The latest journalist killed by IS, Steven Sotloff, was Jewish.

      We keep learning fascinating things about David Duggan's father James.  Right before Iwo Jima was a very good time to injure your wrist!  WAISers will remember that back in March, David posted his father's memoir of witnessing the atomic test in Nevada. I read this account just a few days before driving across the Nevada desert myself:


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    • German POWs; the Case of Two Deserters (David Pike, -France 09/06/14 4:31 PM)

      As a followup to my post of 3 September, here is a page from my 2001 book, The Closing of the Second World War:

      We still await a book on the subject of Nazis in control in the Allied camps for German POWs. John E asked how long after May 1945 could they exercise control. As long as their captors failed to put an end to it, the Nazis had their cages within their camps. However, it is surely impossible that a German soldier in the British camp in Norway ever served six months.

      JE comments:  The story of the two Wehrmacht deserters (above) is jaw-droppingly distressing:  the Canadians provided weapons to the Germans to execute the two men, after the war was over.  Wasn't anyone at the time able to point out the utter absurdity of this?

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  • Axis POWs in US (Cameron Sawyer, USA 09/04/14 11:53 AM)

    I have no doubt that the reality about German and Italian POWs in the US is more complex than what we learned in school--as it always is--but I have a lot of data points for the proposition that German and Italian POWs were treated, on the whole, very well in captivity in the US. Just one data point is the very personal stories of the father of my German girlfriend from the time I was living in Regensburg as a student, who, although he was a convinced Nazi and member of the SS, risked his life to swim across the Danube in winter to fall into American captivity, rather than Soviet, near the end of the war. There are vast numbers of stories of enduring friendships between Americans and Germans which developed during periods of captivity in the US, and of German former POWs who often returned to visit the families on whose farms they worked during their captivity.

    That Roosevelt and Truman sent hundreds of thousands of Soviet POWs to their deaths in the USSR is a tragedy. Indeed, Stalin viewed Soviet soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans to be, ipso facto, betrayers of the motherland, and vast numbers were executed or were sent to the Gulag. Conservative writers like Paul Johnson blame this on the cravenness of the Roosevelt administration, and on their failure to recognize the evil of "Uncle Joe" Stalin. While there may be a grain of truth to that, I think that the reality here is also more complex. It is hard to imagine what choice they really had. Who would have taken them, if no one was willing to take even the Jews facing gas chambers?

    JE comments:  Welcome back, Cameron!  We've missed you.

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