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.
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