5 Prisoner of War Camps in the United States During World War II
5 Prisoner of War Camps in the United States During World War II

5 Prisoner of War Camps in the United States During World War II

Matthew - January 12, 2017

During World War II, the American home front was changed in many ways. Many women went to work for the first time, filling in for men in factories and on farms while they served their country overseas. Rationing of everything from sugar to gasoline to meat forced Americans to sacrifice for the good of their country. Every U.S. citizen was called upon to help out with the war effort in one way or another.

Another noticeable change during the war was the vast network of Prisoner of War camps spread throughout the United States. Over 400,000 foreign POWs, mostly Germans, but also some Italian and Japanese prisoners, lived and worked in the U.S. in over 700 camps. Here are 5 examples of POW camps in the United States during World War II.

Camp Concordia

5 Prisoner of War Camps in the United States During World War II
An aerial view of Camp Concordia. POW Camp Concordia Museum

Camp Concordia held roughly 4,000 prisoners on a large swath of land in north-central Kansas. The camp was the largest out of the 16 in the state of Kansas, with over 800 U.S. soldiers keeping watch on German soldiers and officers on a daily basis. Camp Concordia was built very quickly. It took only 90 days for construction crews to put up over 300 buildings, including a hospital, a fire department, barracks and warehouses for both the prisoners and American soldiers. Most of the German POWs at the camp were captured during battles in North Africa. Many locals initially feared the Germans, believing that the thousands of former Nazi soldiers presented a threat to the community. Eventually, a working relationship between citizens and prisoners was forged.

Being located in rural Kansas meant the German POWs would focus on one type of work: farming. With so many young local men fighting overseas, the residents around Concordia agreed to let the former German soldiers assist with the crucial farming necessary to help sustain the community. Prisoners began arriving and working at Camp Concordia in July 1943. Compared to the fate of many of their fellow Nazi soldiers, who were on the front lines in Europe, or laboring in a Soviet gulag, life in Kansas was not bad for the German POWs. They worked, played sports, and were even allowed to take classes offered by the University of Kansas.

Life was not always peaceful at Camp Concordia, however. On at least two occasions, the German POWs took matters into their own hands and executed fellow prisoners for treason. A so-called “honor court” was organized, and prisoners carried out vigilante justice.

After the war ended, the German soldiers were sent back to their homeland in the fall of 1945. A couple POWs who spent time at Camp Concordia left a mark on German society after they returned home. Harald Deilmann became a respected architect who designed public buildings in Germany, and Reinhard Mohn became a prominent businessman in Germany, and turned Bertelsmann into one of the largest media conglomerates in the world.

5 Prisoner of War Camps in the United States During World War II
Some of the German POWs who escaped from Camp Papago Park. AZ Central

Camp Papago Park

While most of the 700 POW camps scattered across the United States maintained a calm, peaceful existence, there were definitely instances of unrest. None was more notable than what occurred at Camp Papago Park in Phoenix, Arizona on December 23, 1944. That night, a group of 25 imprisoned German military members made a daring escape into the deserts surrounding Phoenix.

Camp Papago Park was different from other POW camps in the U.S. in that the imprisoned Axis soldiers were not forced to work or study. This gave the prisoners a lot of free time, which they eventually used to plot their escape. Papago Park consisted of five compounds, four for enlisted soldiers and one for high-ranking Nazi officers. This turned out to be a mistake on the Americans’ part. The Nazi officers, led by naval Captain Jurgen Wattenberg, put their heads together and began to plan an escape from the camp. The officers told their American guards they wanted to build a volleyball court, and they were given shovels and picks to construct the court.

The Americans didn’t pay attention to the massive piles of dirt that kept accumulating around the Nazi officers’ barracks, believing it was due to construction of the court. Beginning in September 1944, Captain Wattenberg and his men started tunneling out of the camp. By late December, the tunnel stretched 176 feet. The Nazis decided that the evening of December 23 would be the date of the escape. American guards at the camp didn’t realize that the 25 prisoners were missing until 7 p.m. on December 24. The Germans were long gone by that point. They had broken up into small groups and fled in different directions. Their ultimate goal was to get back to Germany through Mexico.

The search for the missing Germans was called the largest manhunt in Arizona’s history at the time. Some of the German escapees were recaptured or surrendered relatively quickly. The harsh desert environment and terrain around Phoenix caused many to abandon their dreams of returning to Germany quickly. Others stayed on the run for quite some time. On January 1, 1945, some of the men were captured only 30 miles from the Mexican border. The final German POW captured was the mastermind of the escape, Captain Wattenberg. He was on the run for over a month, until he was captured in Phoenix on January 28. The escapees feared harsh punishments after they were captured, but their only discipline was being put on a bread and water diet for the number of days they were missing from the camp.

5 Prisoner of War Camps in the United States During World War II
POWs being marched to Camp Aliceville. Aliceville Museum, Inc.

Camp Aliceville

As was mentioned earlier, POW camps housing Axis soldiers were spread all over the country during World War II. Camp Aliceville was a very large POW camp in Alabama, at it’s peak housing 6,000 prisoners. In fact, Aliceville was the largest POW camp in the entire southeastern United States. The first German POWs to arrive at the camp were primarily from Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps, beginning in 1943.

Aliceville was unique among POW camps in the United States in that the German prisoners housed there created an extremely rich cultural lives for themselves behind the barbed wire and guard towers. The prisoners created a camp newspaper, entitled Der Zaungast. They also put on theatrical productions, formed musical groups, and held landscaping contests among the prisoners. Education was also encouraged at Aliceville, and faculty from the University of Alabama taught classes at the camp.

But, like other POW camps in the U.S. during World War II, Aliceville had it’s share of problems as well. Escape attempts occurred, and one group of 6 German prisoners broke out of Aliceville and made it more than 200 miles to Memphis, Tennessee before they were captured by the FBI for stealing a car.

In addition to escape attempts, another recurring theme in POW camps in the U.S. was the distinction between hard-core Nazi prisoners, and those who were simply in the military but didn’t necessarily believe in the Third Reich’s rhetoric. Hardline Nazis in camps, including at Aliceville, harassed and attacked fellow Germans who they believe had turned their back on the Fuhrer and their country. Camp Aliceville’s doctor estimated that 2 or 3 German prisoners were murdered by every month at the camp by hard-core Nazis who believed their victims had become too comfortable with their American captors. While Camp Aliceville began as a regular POW camp, by 1944 it turned into strictly a segregation camp for prisoners who remained devoted Nazis.

5 Prisoner of War Camps in the United States During World War II
German POW Johannes Kunze’s grave in Oklahoma. Find A Grave

Camp Tonkawa

Oklahoma had 8 Prisoner of War camps during World War II, but it was at Camp Tonkawa in the north-central tip of the Sooner state that one of the more notorious POW incidents took place. Tonkawa was home to 2,500 German POWs, mostly from Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, along with 500 U.S. military personnel.

While there was always plotting among German POWs about escapes, and who was or wasn’t loyal to the Nazi party, something unexpected happened at Camp Tonkawa. The Germans had a traitor in their midst: one who was supplying the American captors with information about the activities of the imprisoned Germans. The man’s name was Johannes Kunze. He was a 39-year-old member of Rommel’s Afrika Korps who was captured in Tunisia in May 1943 and sent to Camp Tonkawa. Once at the camp in Oklahoma, Kunze began to cooperate with his American captors, keeping them updated and passing them notes about his fellow German prisoners and what they were up to.

In November 1943, Kunze passed a note, written in German, to a new American doctor at the camp who was not aware of his role as informant, and did not speak German. Believing it was some kind of mix-up, the doctor gave the note to another German prisoner. The note made its way into the hands of Senior Sergeant Walter Beyer, a hard-core Nazi. On the night of November 4, Beyer convened a court of fellow German prisoners, and Kunze was found guilty as a spy by his former comrades. Kunze’s punishment: he was brutally beaten to death.

American authorities questioned 200 German POWs in Kunze’s death, and finally settled on 5 to prosecute. Among them was Senior Sergeant Walter Beyer. The 5 Germans were found guilty of murder, and were executed by hanging on July 10, 1945 in Leavenworth, Kansas.

5 Prisoner of War Camps in the United States During World War II
The chapel built by Italian POWs at Camp Atterbury as it appears today. Flickr

Camp Atterbury

Construction on Camp Atterbury near Edinburgh, Indiana began almost immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The camp served as a training facility for the U.S. armed forces as well as a POW camp for German and Italian soldiers. The camp was massive, comprising over 43,000 acres of land. The 9,000 bed hospital at Camp Atterbury was one of the largest in the United States at the time and treated over 85,000 patients during World War II. Camp Atterbury was much like a small city. It had movie theaters, barber shops, churches, and anything else a soldier might need in a regular town or city.

The POWs at Camp Atterbury were housed in a large complex on the far edge of the grounds, away from the daily business of the military. The POW population at the camp was enormous. 3,500 Italians and 10,000 Germans called Camp Atterbury home during World War II. The prisoners worked on nearby farms and canneries throughout southern Indiana.

Prisoners at Camp Atterbury later described their incarceration in Indiana as somewhat idyllic. Compared to freezing to death on the Eastern Front in Russia, or being forced to do slave labor in Siberia, working on a farm or in a factory in Indiana was just fine with them. In the 1980s, a German soldier named Peter von Seidlein looked back on his time at Camp Atterbury. He said, “Life in the POW camp was heaven. We received a new U.S. Army outfit, got as much to eat as we could eat and slept in a bed with a mattress.”

The POWs of Camp Atterbury left behind a physical reminder of their time in Indiana as well. Italian prisoners asked and were given permission to build a small chapel out of discarded materials on the grounds of the camp. The small chapel is located in a wooded section of the camp, and it was a sanctuary for the Italians, a place for them to connect to their homeland and their religious beliefs in a country that was foreign in every way to them. The chapel was forgotten and abandoned after World War II, but was restored by historians in the 1990s, so visitors can now visit the structure.

Today, it’s difficult to imagine hundreds of thousands of foreign enemy fighters living side-by-side with American citizens. The large network of Prisoner of War camps in the United States during World War II is an important, fascinating, and for many people, an undiscovered piece of American history.

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