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WWII POW Camps in the United States

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.

Barracks in a German POW camp

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.

If you would like to learn more about POWs on American soil, Allied POWs held in Europe and Asia, or search additional WWII records, visit Fold3 today!

344 Comments

  1. One of the Geneva requiements was the prisoner was to billited in a climate near to that of the point of capture. South Central PA was certianly close to that of France/Germany.

  2. The prison camps are open history although some like Michaux near Pine Grove Furnace in PA was almost systematically destroyed by the military. What is not well known are the internment camps, these were used by the government in both WW1 and WW2. In WW1 about 10,000 Americans of German origin and 3000 of Austrian origin and in WW2 about 11,000 of German origin and 3000 of Italian origin were interrred, note these were mostly AMERICAN citizens! And Oh, BTW, thw 110,000 of Japanese origin who were sent to the cold and hot of Kansas and Nebraska. Heil Hitler, heil Woodrow Wilson, heil FDR. I have studied this, it is covered in my book, Amassing Power, Oppressive Governments… These internments were done with no charges…. JUst suspicion.

    • Well there was the “Niihau incident” that occurred immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, where a crash-landed Japanese pilot received help in escaping detention and in destroying sensitive documents from Japanese-Americans living on the small U.S. island of Niihau. It does not seem entirely unreasonable to me, in times of war, to want to head off bigger incidents before they occurred. I don’t deny that a serious injustice was done to many Japanese-Americans in being detained during the war, but I think we need to view things in context. We also need to consider what the alternative solutions might have been, had it actually been a case of “Heil FDR” as you say. How exactly could we have expected Hitler to have dealt with a problem of this nature? By temporary detention? Or by brutal and permanent extermination? Somebody needs to get real here… comparisons with Adolf Hitler are delusional.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more

  3. My grand father used German POWs on his farm near El Paso during World War II. I remember him telling me they were grateful for the humane treatment and food.

    • I think food is something that people forget. Due to the blockade, by the Allied Navy, food (in Europe) was in very short supply.

      Even in the UK, with the help of the US, everything was rationed. This is one week’s strictly enforced ration for an adult in the UK:

      Bacon & Ham 4 oz
      Other meat value of 1 shilling and 2 pence (equivalent to 2 chops)
      Butter 2 oz
      Cheese 2 oz
      Margarine 4 oz
      Cooking fat 4 oz
      Milk 3 pints
      Sugar 8 oz
      Preserves 1 lb every 2 months
      Tea 2 oz
      Eggs 1 fresh egg (plus allowance of dried egg)
      Sweets 12 oz every 4 weeks

      You had to queue for everything. Remember that the Axis populace had even less. In Germany, bread was ‘bulked out’ with sawdust and the coffee substitute was made from acorns.

  4. During WWII, there was a German POW camp outside Childress, TX. The weather in the Texas Panhandle was different in the 1940s than that of today. Winters were colder longer; sandstorms raged off and on; and wind blew fiercely most of the time. Later, when I married and had children, we lived in Dallas, but my parents still lived in the Panhandle, and we visited often so our children experienced some of that extreme weather. One day I told my youngest daughter about the POW camp in Childress during WWII. “And they said we didn’t torture prisoners!” was her assessment.

    • You can tell your daughter that the POW prisoners in American prisons were not tortured, but that they had been captured when they were shooting at Americans, so keeping them in a POW prison during the war simply made sure that they were not going to shoot any American soldiers. Also, at the end of the war they were sent back to their own country There were even some POW’s who did not want to return to their own country and some of them made friends with Americans while they were POW’s. The American POW camps were much different than the German POW or Japanese POW camps in other countries..

  5. It’s not listed on here but there was a labor camp in Syosset N.Y. On Long Island.

  6. During WWII, German POWs lived on German speaking farms outside Louisville, KY. My mother said the POWs at the Arrowhead farm ate at the same table as the family.

    The farm families needed the help, and the POWs were happy for a good place to live.

  7. These first hand accounts are very interesting! Having been a small child during WWII I do recall the rationing. My father drove around all over the area to try to buy some tires for our one vehicle he drove to work. The tires were “may pops” but he could not get even one tire anywhere. I sensed his fears.
    My father drank Postum instead of coffee [I looked it up online and there it was, even in a jar similar to the one I remember from the early 1940s. I didn’t think it tasted good enough to survive the war!!! Also margarine instead of butter. It was my job to break the little color capsule and mix it up with the WHITE margarine because margarine could not be sold in the same form and color as butter. We were taught in school that there was “no difference whatsoever in margarine and butter.” We now know differently. But everything was geared toward support of the war effort. We even bought stamps for our savings bond book INSIDE the classroom. We pledged allegiance every morning and sang the “Star Spangled Banner.” There were LOTS of parades downtown featuring the military bases in our area: Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Patriotism was instilled and we carried out our part with PRIDE in our country.

    • You just described my memories of WWII deprivations. However, with one uncle in Army infantry, one in the Army Air Corps, and the other in the Seabees, we felt no real deprivation….just a commitment to support those willing to risk their lives to preserve freedom.

    • Sounds like my childhood old Baltimore but I lived in an ethnic German/Polish neighborhood near where the ships came in and I even went on a captured German sub. My mother’s cousins fought for Grmany and we felt sad when Hamburg and Dresden were fire bombed. We had family there and also 5 in the Consentraition camps.

    • Few are aware of some of the things that were done. My dad was the senior maintenance in a food processing plant. His job was deemed critical to the war effort, he was 30 when we entered the war and his company was able to get him deferred. He could not leave the job, essentially it was like being drafted, he would have been picked up if he left the job. The company took this as a perk from them, in August 1945 he was at the same wage as on December 1941. They didn;t have to give him a raise, he didn;t get one. My mom, sewing canvass at Maslands in Carlisle Pa in 1944 was making about double an hour as he was as the senior maintenance. With the war inflation, we would have been in trouble without her pay. He had three brothers and 2 brothers in law fighting in France and North Africa, on KIA, 2 purple hearts and i with cluster. I mentioned Georg Hertig earler, a German prisoner, 38 years old with several kids in Germany, who was killed at the plant. My dad called him a mechanic and trouble shooter, and every reference i can remember was, indicated a friend. I can remember emotion when he talked about it later, the man was hanged in a closet with his hands behind his back, called a suicide. I have tried unsuccessfully to find his family. If anyone has a clue or a place to start, tell me. I could close a loose end. .

      A couple things, Prisoners brought here were well treated. Prosiners in Germany for the most part were not MISTREATED, the treatment was far worse for American prisoners in Germany but the resources were not as good, and the japanese just plain mistreated and killed prisoners.

    • Georg HARTIG – (note spelling) death by hanging (suicide) on 1st November 1944.

      Father Hartmann Hartig

      Mother Anna Kunigunde Hartig

      Copies of death certificate (by USA and Germany) are on Ancestry

    • My great grandfather committed suicide because he couldn’t go back to Germany bec he came to America to avoid the Franco-Prussian War. He left his widow with 8 children. She came from an old American family. Ancestor was Thomas Betts, an English sailor in Jamestown in 1519. Her father Orville Betts fought for the Confederacy with the S Carolina 1st Division and was imprisoned until 1873 for refusing to recognize the Union. He signed up in Nashville in 1861. My father’s side were Connecticut Yankees and fought in the American Revolution and the against the South. We no longer associated w them when I was 9.

    • My German isn’t great, sadly – but I can see Georg was married to Elisabetha Margarete Hartig and the couple lived in Wixhausen, Hessen (Hesse).

      Hopefully this helps move you forwards a bit.

    • Thanks I have ancestry… I will start with it.

  8. During WWII an Italian Prisoner of War camp was established in Jesup, GA, I was a teen at the time, but I recall that the prisoners seemed to be glad to be there, & after the war some came back to visit. They found the locals to be very friendly. Jesup was a small town in South Georgia.

  9. Read a great true book ” Playing with the Enemy”. U-Boat crew held by US Navy to keep secret the German codes captured after their U-Boat was captured. Book is about a sailor who taught the German Crew BASEBALL to keep them occupied.

  10. My wife saw German prisoners in Idaho when she was young. I saw German prisoners in Maryland when I was young. All of the prisoners appeared to be happy and healthy behind the barbed wire. Occasionally, some German prisoners were mistreated by their American captors who didn’t obey the rules. Very occasionally, some American prisoners were treated kindly by their enemy captors who didn’t obey their rules. The lesson for our enemies in future wars is for them to surrender rather than fight. The lesson for our soldiers is to fight to the death rather than surrender.

  11. My grandfather was a German POW. All I know is that he arrived in Boston and the camp commander was a mean person. He was moved from that camp and sent across the northern states and back across the southern states to work in the fields. He mentioned picking various crops such as peas and cotton. After that first camp, he said all the other camps were fine. He and the other POWs were treated and fed well. My grandmother was surprised when he returned because he had gained weight during his imprisonment while POWs returning from other countries were thin and in ill health. He wanted to stay in the US but could not, as he would not be able to bring his wife and children (one was my mom) over to join him.

    • In the UK, in 1946, 25% of the agricultural labour were PoWs. It is small wonder that many complained they were being used as slave labour. Some PoWs went on strike, demanded more money, or refused to work.

      Today I found a newspaper article where a British man went into his pigeon coup and found a stray pigeon. Attached to the pigeon’s leg was a message from a group of PoWs who stated “We want to go home.” It was signed by a dozen of the prisoners – and actually led to a statement in the House of Commons, in 1947, by a Minister who replied, “We can’t let them [the PoWs] go home, as we need them on the farms.”

      Many UK farmers (and I suspect US farmers) made up, somewhat, for the poor pay, by feeding ‘their’ PoWs. It was frowned upon, by the authorities, but was widespread.

      The last of the UK’s PoWs were sent home in 1948.

      Russia kept their German PoWs for a LOT longer, as I am sure many are aware.

      I’m sorry, but I don’t know the statistics for the USA.

    • Yes, one of my second cousins was captured by the Russians at Stalingrad at the beginning of 1943. He was released 13 years later and was lucky to have made it home.

    • Many German POWS were worked to death in Russia. I knew of the father of a friend, who was in the Luftwaffe, who committed suicide on his last bullet after shooting Asiatic Russian in East Prussia. They were the ignorant ones, who drank out of German toilets like the dogs they were. Unfortunately they raped even girl children. Abortion was justified and I am a Catholic.

  12. There was a POW camp in Ft. Worth,Tarrant Co, Texas in the southern part of the city next to the Kimbell Food Co. My aunt lived in a house next to the fence that divided the property. When we visited her, we would watch the guards marching around the fence with guns. I don’t have any information on the compound. I was about 8-9 yrs old at the time.
    Also, there was another POW camp in Cleburne, Johnson Co, Texas south of where we lived. You could see the compound driving down Highway 67. We lived in Burleson, Johnson Co, Texas which was between the two camps.

  13. When my husband worked with the US State Department and assigned to West Germany in the late 1960s, he would recount how many times he and his co-workers would go into a German bar and order a beer or whatever. Most of the time, like 9x out of 10, someone would come up to them and say, “American? I was prisoner of war in America. Let me buy your beer/meal (whatever)!” They were so grateful to have been POW in US and were pleased to run into Americans.

    • I was stationed at three different locations in Germany 1962-1965 while in the U.S. Army. We were not on military bases, but lived with the Germans. Met a German vet who had been a guest at a prison camp at Bastrop, LA, my hometown. He was very great-full for the treatment he received there. Numerous times, too many to remember, we were given free beer and/or meals when someone found out we were Americans.

  14. My father was a member of the 978th Engineer Maintenance Company trained at Camp McCoy, WI in late 1942-43. The Camp held both German and Japanese prisoners. He recalled how the Germans (Afrika Corps) really ‘milked’ their work details.

  15. There is the story of a German immigrant (Commercial Sea Captain) who lived in the Mobile, AL area. Before the war involved the USA, he wanted to make one last trip to Germany to see his family and possibly bring them to America. While in Germany, he was detained and forced into the German Submarine corps, a submarine captain. Because he was familiar with the many ports and waters in the Gulf of Mexico, he was assigned to blow up liberty ships leaving the ports along the US Gulf Coast headed for France and England.
    As the war turned around and Germany was losing, he beached his submarine on the shallow shoals near Mobile, AL. The crew surrendered dressed in civilian clothes, and when “frisked”, many of the crew had used theater tickets in their pockets. The admitted that they were frequently taking shore leave in Mobile. As it was later determined, the crew did, in fact, sink much shipping of supplies to Europe, but radioed to targeted ships that they would be given time to abandon their ship and go back ashore before their ship was torpedoed. Thus, the German Sub Captain radioed back to Germany their presumed “kills” but neglected to give the humanitarian details. Many of the crew had learned some conversational English, and had managed to even meet American girlfriends. After interrogated and it was learned how they managed to “do their duty” as German navy, but spared American Liberty Ship lives, they were well treated as POWs until released at the end of the war. We are told, most of these submarine crew members, applied and received American citizenship after the war and married American girls. The girls (old ladies now) commented on how handsome and well-mannered the POWs were on the POW work/prison trucks — some recall well groomed blonde hair blue eyes and hard workers. Just a happy ending for a horrible war.

    • Nice story – but completely rubbish. This did NOT happen for dozens of reasons. In fact you’ve even managed to further embellish an old wives tale – congratulations.

  16. There was a POW camp in Hayward, WI for Italians. As a child I lived nearby and knew of it, but not many details. I do think the POWs worked for the WI Conservation Dept as the camp was on their land where they maintained a nursery for growing trees later to be planted thoughout Wisconsin. The Conservation Dept also allowed victory garden plots for the local people…my dad included.

  17. Captured German officers were kept at the Greenbrier in WV; Japanese officers at the Bedford Springs Hotel in PA. There were no guards because conditions were too luxurious to leave.

    • Wow!! I’m sure the accommodations were better than they would have received in their home country. Thanks for this info.

    • Based on what i have gleened from varous sources the camps for the most part were lightly guarded. Prisoners were in wire fences but the guard contingent was light except in camps that held the more militants. The one at Michaux, Pine Grove Furnace PA, that is about 30 miles from Harrisburg, supplied a work force in farms, factories and fields. My dad transported prisoners from there to the Adams Apple plant in Aspers PA (note, a plant that processed many farm products and located in Adams County). These were scattered over the plant in various jobs, certailly not under serious guard. Others were in fields, some were in forests cutting trees with saws and axes…. We lived at Hunters Run near the railroad statioin – initially prisoners were taken off the train there, marched up State Route 34 to pine grove road, then to Michaux road and then camp, about 10 miles. Later they stopped the train at the Pine Grove Crossing and took the prisoners off there, saving a 1 1/2 mile hike and avoiding passing the Beam boys who lived next door to me who went out and threw stones at the prisoners.

  18. One question out to anyone… The Carlisle PA historical society has a booklet that calls the Michaux PA camp a “Guntameno” – a secret prisoneer of war camp. Not so, no way. But there are rumors that there was a secret camp in the area, a place called Kings Gap, the old C H Masland estate, a lavish stone mansion on on the mountain near Carlisle. The story makes sense – high ranking prisoners were held there, as opposed to average soldiers at Michaux, and they were taken to the Army War College at Carlisle PA for ‘interrogation” which considted of good dinners with American Officers…. These were out of the war long enough to not have current information but what we beeing gleened was thought and strategy.. Has enyone heard about this?

    • Most of the prisoners were questioned in specialist places in the UK, prior to D-Day. After June 1944, they were initially questioned at bases in France and Germany (and other countries, depending on the theatre of war in which they were captured).

      Depending on the category of prisoner (cooperator to ardent fascist), it was then decided on which camp they would be sent. Remember that the majority of prisoners were first sent to, and held in, UK PoW Camps. Then they were shipped to the USA and other countries (Canada and Australia etc etc).

      As you state, by the time they reached the USA and other faraway countries, any useful information would be out of date.

  19. I attended 4-H camp for two summers at the POW site in Crossville, TN. The second year the grounds keeper led some of the campers on a tour of the POW grounds explaining how the camp worked and how the Germans despised the Italians after Italy surrendered. He told only one prisoner escaped and no one knew how. When we got back to the old gym, there was a former German POW present who came to visit the camp. He discussed the prison life and of course someone asked him if he knew how the one prisoner escaped. He said yes, it was a Lt. Colonel who had worked on local farms and gathered civilian American clothes. He spoke fluent English, hopped on the back of the garbage truck and rode out of camp saying see you all tomorrow.

  20. around 1981 my wife and I were touring Ireland and went to visit the Great Skellig Island on a small fishing boat. The captain spoke Irish and the other passengers were a few kids from the continent and an older cpl who spoke German. We were left to explore the island we eventually shared our lunch with the cpl who had brought nothing. I had some German from college and he had some English so we conversed. I asked where he lived. Austria he replied. I said I had been there and really liked it. I asked him if he had ever visited the USA. He replied “Yes, I was a POW in Peoria, Illinois”.

  21. Question/?? Was there a POW camp in the Pocono Mountains of PA, near TOBYHANNA, PA where either German or Italian prisoners were held?

    I always thought there was.

    What’s the truth?

    William J. “Bill Getson”
    Staff Sgt Korean War 1952 1955.