Concordia guard tower

POWs in the Heartland

This month’s post was originally published in the Johnson County Gazette in October of 2021.

This month’s article is a bit of a departure from the Johnson County history that this column usually covers.  I felt that this topic was so interesting that I had to cover it in this month’s column.  The title of the story says it all; during World War II, Kansas camps were used to house thousands of German Prisoners of War. 

There were three main camps in Kansas: Camp Concordia, Fort Riley, and Camp Phillips near Salina.  In addition to the main camps, there were several “branch camps”.  These branch camps were usually temporary camps set up to house prisoners in a certain area to meet labor needs in that area.  There were likely between 10 and 15 branch camps in the state during the years 1943-1946.  These camps existed in such places as Lawrence, Ottawa, Council Grove, and Hutchison among other locations.

In the early years of U.S. participation in World War II, the British asked for help in housing German Prisoners of War.  The U.S. agreed and during the war, over 400,000 German POWs were shipped to the US on ships returning to the states after delivering military supplies to England.  Kansas was not alone in housing the soldiers, in fact throughout the U.S., there were over 100 POW camps across the country.  Most of the camps were located from Kansas to the east coast with a very high number of camps located in Louisiana, East Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

We’ve all seen movies and heard stories about Americans in German POW camps and if you imagine that the experience of a German POW in America was similar to what it was for American POWs, you would be incorrect.  The United States strictly followed the rules of the Geneva Convention, which it signed in 1929.  The Geneva Convention laid out rules for prisoners of war.  These rules basically said that prisoners would be treated roughly the same as a solider in the U.S. Army of the same rank.  Prisoners were to get the same amount of food, personal space, supplies, etc.  Some of the higher-ranking German POWs were even given private cottages and gardens in Mississippi to ensure that the U.S. met the Convention requirements. 

Prisoners could also not be forced to work; they could volunteer to work.  This was very common for the German prisoners in the U.S.  Prisoners were often used to fill in the labor shortages on farms and manufacturing facilities in the U.S.  The employers who used POW labor paid the government directly for the labor provided by the prisoners.  The prisoners received a certain part of this payment.  Prisoners used their earnings to purchase items from the prison commissary. 

A common story regarding these German prisoners was that after the war, they left the U.S. weighing considerably more than they did when they arrived.  This can be attributed to the fact that the living conditions for them in the US prison camp, was usually much better than the conditions in Germany in general and certainly in the German Military.  Many of the camps provided social activities for the soldiers as well.  Dances and picnics with local residents as well as the opportunities to attend college classes and play in bands and orchestras were normal activities for the prisoners in these camps.  There are several stories about German soldiers coming back after the war to marry American girls whom they had met during their stay in our country. 

When the war ended in 1945, the repatriation of the prisoners became a topic for heated debate.  Labor organizations wanted them gone immediately because they were competition for American workers.  Farmers and manufacturing were sad to lose their inexpensive labor and wanted them to stay a bit longer.  There were also humanitarian concerns in that, for many of the prisoners, there was nothing for them to go back to as many German cities were had been reduced to rubble.  On July 23, 1946, the last German POW in the U.S. boarded a ship and left American soil.

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