WW2 POW Camps: 5 Prisoner of War Camps in USA 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

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 its 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 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 its 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 3,000 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 an 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, barbershops, 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.

Some Sources For Further Reading:

How Frank Savicki Broke Free From a German POW Camp

North Vietnam States That American Airmen Will Not Be Treated As POW’s

American Special Forces Attempt to Rescue POWs in North Vietnam

The Civil War’s Deadliest POW Camp Claimed Thousands of American Lives

A WWII Rampage at a POW Camp”¦In Utah

Japanese POW Camps During World War II

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