When the United States entered WWII in 1941, the United Kingdom was running short on prison space and asked the US for help in housing German POWs. The US agreed and when Liberty Ships transported US soldiers overseas, the relatively empty ships brought back as many as 30,000 Axis POWs per month to America. From 1942-1945, more than 400,000 POWs, mostly German, were housed in some 500 POW camps located in this country. When the war ended in 1945, the US began transporting the prisoners back to their home countries and by 1946 they had all been repatriated.
German POWs found conditions in the United States somewhat surprising. Other POWs, such as Americans captured by Japanese or German forces; or Germans captured by Russian forces, fared much worse and endured horrific conditions. The United States, however, tried to adhere to the terms of the Geneva Convention, which meant that POWs were treated with compassion and allowed to live in safe conditions. When required to work, prisoners were compensated for their labor. With that compensation, they could buy items from the canteen such as cigarettes, soda, or ice-cream. Prisoners were shocked to see many items available for purchase that were unavailable back home because of shortages and rationing.
While imprisoned in America, German prisoners filled a critical labor shortage created by the war. They worked on farms, in the fields, at factories, and even worked constructing roads and barracks in the POW camps where they resided.
Fritz Ensslin served as a tank gunner in an armored regiment of the German Army. After being captured, he was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, a POW camp in Missouri, in 1943. He described the 30-day voyage to America, “On a daily basis during the trip we were followed and attacked by German submarines. We arrived at Fort Leonard Wood at midnight after a two-day trip in well-secured rail cars.” Like many, Ensslin was afraid of the treatment he might receive as a POW. He was pleasantly surprised to find barracks that contained a bed, mattress, blankets and a pillow for each prisoner. “We had the feeling of being in a Hilton Hotel. For years we had been sleeping either inside or on top of our tanks,” he said. The men were given food described as a “dream meal” and joked with one another that if they had known they would be treated this way, “we would have sneaked across earlier instead of fighting until we ran out of ammunition.” Prisoners also received medical care when needed, and in the event of death, were given respectful funerals and burials.
In some instances, German POWs attempted to escape, but most were apprehended. One exception was Georg Gaertner. Gaertner escaped from a prison camp at Camp Deming, New Mexico in 1945. While imprisoned, he learned the war had ended, and he would be sent back to a hometown that was then under Russian occupation. He came up with a plan to escape by hopping a freight train. He changed his name, worked odd jobs in several states, and eventually married a woman who was unaware of his past. In 1985, he revealed the secret to his wife and with her encouragement surrendered to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 2009, Gaertner was granted US citizenship. He passed away in 2013.