In mid 1943 they came-Nazis, thousands of ‘em, to the great state of Tennessee. It was an invasion the likes of which Tennesseans had not seen since the 1860s. It was an incredible sight, large groups of enemy soldiers walking through the streets of small towns like Lebanon, Tn where just a year before US soldiers had marched through by the thousands participating in mid state maneuvers and war games. Yes, in 1942 it had been merely a game, a training exercise. A number of men had been killed and injured, but this was due to accidents, not warfare. There were no real enemy soldiers, just US soldiers pretending to be the enemy. The real enemy was far away, appearing only in newsreels and newspapers.
A year later this had changed. In a sense, the war had come home. Now the soldiers climbing out of trucks and trains appearing in towns such as Clarksville, Lebanon, and Tullahoma looked a great deal like American soldiers but they spoke German and wore Wermacht, German army uniforms. No play-acting this time, they were the real thing. I can only imagine the surprise and raised eyebrows of the old men gathered around the town square, sitting in their usual places whittling, playing checkers, and chewing tobacco, when they caught their first glimpse of the enemy on Tennessee soil.
The German soldiers were real enough but, in all honesty, not very frightening. They were unarmed POWs, the acronym for “prisoners of war.” Tennessee was a world away from Frankfurt or Berlin. Any attempt to escape was utterly futile. So the vast majority made the best of it. Under the watchful eyes of armed guards they were well behaved- courteous, friendly, and cheerful. Moreover, they were curious about their new surroundings and eager, when allowed, to fraternize with the natives. Many spoke English. For them, the death and destruction of the European war was a thing of the past. For them the war was over. And most of the prisoners couldn’t have been happier about it.
One of the reasons for their good cheer was this: every POW was acutely aware that he was among the fortunate. In 1943 two of every three German soldiers fought on the Eastern front against the Russians. A German soldier did not want to be a POW in the East. To be a prisoner of the Russians was to be under a death sentence, a slow agonizing death in an ice-cold labor camp where food and medical aid was scarce. As POWs they had arrived in the promised land. For POWs, it was as good as it gets .
There was a simple reason for this. In 1929 United States delegates had agreed to and signed the regulations of the Geneva Convention pertaining to the humane treatment of prisoners of war. And they did so with every intention of following them to the letter. When the US entered the war in late 1941 it was believed that US personnel in German hands would fare much better if the US treated German prisoners according to the Geneva agreement, which, incidentally, Germany had signed as well. They were right. Though not without many humiliations and hardships, US servicemen in German POW camps fared reasonably well.
All in all, the Geneva Agreements worked pretty well. Prisoners on both sides (US and Germany) throughout the war, fared well, for the most part, once they got away from the front lines and into semi-permanent confinement. But they had to get away from the front lines first. Many ugly incidents of angry combat soldiers murdering or abusing enemy soldiers are recorded. All too often our GIs would take a bunch of prisoners off to the woods and shoot them. All too often German soldiers did the same.
Downed American pilots and bomber crews were often threatened by mobs of angry German civilians. They weren’t safe until German service personnel arrived on the scene to rescue them. Sometimes they didn’t arrive soon enough. Such are the fortunes of war.
Unfortunately World War Two was a far bigger conflict than the US verses Germany. We were also fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. Out there it was much different. In the Pacific things got ugly, real ugly, real fast. Especially regarding the treatment of US and allied POWs.
Reports of terrible Japanese abuses toward US and Filipino prisoners in the infamous Bataan Death March reached the US soon after the capitulation of General McArthur’s forces in April, 1942. Americans, already angry about the attack on Pearl Harbor became even more angry. The enemy they faced in the Pacific, many Americans concluded, was an uncivilized beast, and should not, therefore, be according anything but death and destruction. With each passing month, Americans in a tight spot became even more reluctant to surrender knowing the sorry fate that awaited them.
Japan had signed the Geneva Agreement in 1929 but made it known as soon as war erupted that they had not the slightest intention of abiding by it. In their “Bushido”, their belief as to the responsibilities of a warrior, surrender was not allowed. The true warrior fought to the death. In this creed any warrior who allowed himself to be captured was a disgrace to his uniform, to his family, and most of all, a disgrace to the emperor. They felt perfectly justified when abusing and starving American or allied servicemen. The result was an appalling death rate of POWs in Japanese hands and many highly publicized, humiliating trials of Japanese officers after the war , a legacy of shame for the empire of Japan. It took many years for Americans to forgive and forget. Many never did.
A few years ago I attended a graveside service near Danville, Ky. Walking amongst the tombstones I noticed one in particular with this inscription along the bottom: “I survived the Bataan Death March.” That occupant of that grave, Ernest Sampson, born in 1919 and died in 1990, never forgot, and probably never forgave the Japanese for what they had done to him and to his comrades.
Through the course of the Pacific conflict US servicemen in the Pacific conquered the Japanese in hundreds of places as they slowly but surely made their way toward the Japanese home islands. But they took few prisoners. Here is an astonishing fact: Before the Emperor made his announcement calling for capitulation in August 1945, NO Japanese officer facing sure defeat or annihilation ever communicated with an American or allied officer in the field asking for surrender terms, a pretty common practice with German officers in similar circumstances. In tough combat situations, when it was obvious that “the jig was up” and there was no hope for success or even survival, the Japanese officer would take out his Hara-Kara knife, do himself in, and expect the men under his command to either fight to the death or do themselves in as well. And they usually did.
This made a captured Japanese serviceman a rare and valued possession. Their captors, very interested in any valuable information or intel they might obtain from a prisoner, tended to treat him very well to induce his cooperation, a thing that aroused intense anger from front-line troops, men who knew very well that they would not be treated similarly if they fell into Japanese hands.
US care of Japanese POWs was almost a non-issue. Only a handful, about five thousand Japanese POWs, made it to the continental US, to camps in Iowa and Wisconsin. Most of these had not actually surrendered in the field but had been overwhelmed or seized before they had had the chance to do themselves in.
US care of German and Italian POWs was no small task. They began arriving in the US soon after US forces clashed with the enemy in the North Africa campaign. Their numbers grew in the Summer of 1943, after the surrender of approximately three hundred thousand Axis forces at Tunis in May. About half of these were sent to the US on “Liberty ships”, the same vessels that had brought GIs East simply turned around and brought Axis POWs West to their new wartime homes. U-boats captains were quickly informed that a US ship headed West would probably contain POWs and that if they sent it to the bottom they would be killing their own. Consequently few US transport ships headed toward the US were attacked after mid- 1943.
In the volume entitled PRISONERS OF WAR, part of the Time-Life series on World War Two, the chapter covering the US continental POW program is entitled “An Easygoing Custody.” By war’s end, nearly half a million Axis POWs “did time” in the US.
Many of the first POWs to arrive in the US were sent to Camp Forrest, an enormous military installation and training center located just outside Tullahoma, TN. Before these veterans of the Africa campaign were shipped off to other camps by late 1943, mostly in East Texas, their numbers swelled to nearly 24,000-a Nazi invasion of our fair state of Tennessee. After their departure the US army moved back into the formerly enemy-occupied areas and resumed its own training activities there.
Another type of prisoner was kept at Camp Forrest (and at a smaller installation down the road near Crossville): unhappy individuals and even some families, civilians all, newly classified officially as “enemy aliens”, persons rounded up in early and mid 1942 considered security risks and possible spies or saboteurs. Many were recent arrivals from Germany and Italy. The FBI was especially busy that year, knocking on doors and telling those inside, many of whom barely understood English, that they must pack their bags and report to internment centers where they would be held in custody until they could clear up certain questionable issues on their files-a sort of guilty status until they could prove their innocence. Over the next year or most of these persons were able to do so, especially since many were Jewish refugees from Nazism! Many of these, however, could never explain to the satisfaction of government authorities just why they had come to the US. They remained in custody until the end of war.
One of the prevalent myths of the WW II era goes something like this: ONLY Japanese-Americans were “rounded up and sent to concentration camps (not exactly the way it was even if that were true) and white people of German and Italian ancestry were left alone”-proof of just how racist the US was at the time.
The truth is that once war with Germany broke out in late 1941, the US government eagerly sought out suspicious persons regardless of color. “White people” were exempt? Nonsense. J. Edgar Hoover and his “G-men” loved to arrest white people! Foreign born persons, especially those who had been active in the German-American Bund prior to hostilities, were under special scrutiny. They had some questions to answer. And if they could not offer the needed answers, off to the internment centers they went. Recent studies have revealed that as many as ten thousand persons of this sort were sent to dozens of internment centers across the US. Two were here in Tennessee.
At Camp Forrest , named for General NB Forrest of Civil War fame, and at many other similar installations across the US, the POWs were treated well. Very well. So well in fact, that many US citizens complained to the government that the “enemy was being coddled.” Let these Nazis suffer, so they said.
The War Department thought otherwise. They defended themselves and their program not only on humanitarian grounds, but with the reasoning that if Axis prisoners received good treatment, they would be far more likely to surrender. Good conditions for Axis prisoners would shorten the war. And this would save American lives.
There is ample reason to believe that they were right. By the time allied forces crossed the Rhine into Germany in March 1945, their principal opposition was old men, convalescents, and boys. Crack German combat units were a mere shadow of their former selves. They had surrendered by the hundreds of thousands. The war lasted only another five or six weeks. Critics of the POW program were effectively silenced.
Over here, Axis prisoners had it pretty good- plenty to eat, good housing, proper clothing (they were allowed to wear their own uniforms at all times) access to recreational facilities, libraries, movies, and much more. Compared to their comrades in Russia, they were on vacation. Were they?
Not exactly. They were required, enlisted men in particular, to work up to ten hours a day, the limit established by the Geneva Convention, but they could not be sent to work in war-related industries. A few worked alongside US civilians in canneries and food processing plants, but most Axis POWs performed good old-fashioned farm work- baling hay, picking cotton, harvesting vegetables, cutting and curing tobacco, feeding livestock, etc. With so many young men overseas, US farmers were glad for the help. The government and the many contractors supplying the armed forces were buying everything they could produce.
The Geneva Convention also stipulated that POW labor could not be slave labor. Workers had to be paid. But the pay rate was up to those in charge. Naturally they didn’t get much, on average about fifty cents a day, usually not in cash, but in certificates and coupons to be redeemed at the camp canteen for snacks, magazines, toiletries, and dozens of other items including that most prized commodity of all, cigarettes. American cigarettes were considered far superior to their European counterparts.
Fifty cents a day was not a good wage, but it beat nothing by a long shot. What would fifty cents buy in 1943? A bottle of Coca Cola was five cents. A nice lunch at a café could be had for twenty-five cents. A gallon of gas (purchased only with a ration book) was fifteen cents. Admission to a double feature at a movie theatre (sometimes POWs were allowed to go) was a dime. A standard postage stamp was three cents. Fifty cents is probably comparable to eight or ten dollars now. For the POW, whose room, board, medical care, and clothing was all provided, that fifty cents seems pretty fair in my estimation, as long as the prices at the prison commissary were not inflated.
It didn’t all go the “company store.” Sometimes the POWs were paid with real money, money they were eager to spend when passing through retail districts on their way to work sites. My father told me of seeing German POWs from Camp Forrest performing work details near his home in Lebanon, TN. When word got out that the POWs had money, my enterprising father, who was fifteen years old in 1943 obtained cartoons of cigarettes from his brother-in-law and did a brisk business with the “Krauts.” They were, much to his surprise, polite, cheerful, and well behaved. He solicited their business at the local high school where they were putting up decorations in the gymnasium for an upcoming dance. Apparently the citizens of Lebanon were happy to employ these fellows in all sorts of jobs. Cheerful, intelligent, hardworking, and strong young men for only fifty cents a day? Who would turn that down?
Years ago when visiting in the home of a friend I noticed an interesting framed document on his wall with a list of about a dozen Germanic names neatly scripted underneath an inscription, all done in a beautiful Gothic script. My friend told me that this was presented as an official token of gratitude and appreciation to his father ( who lived near Camp Campbell) during the war by a group of German POWs who had worked on his farm for several months. War or no war, during the course of their employment they had become good friends. My friend said that this framed document had been one of his father’s most cherished possessions.
Arriving in the US, the POWs were astonished at what they found in their new home away from home. The vast richness of America overwhelmed them, a place untouched by the ravages of war, a nation where the average middle-class family owned a home and an automobile, a unified but diverse nation where anyone who wanted to work could do so (at least during the war.) In Germany and Italy, only the well-to-do owned an auto. Even under wartime rationing Americans lived better than Europeans. Upon their arrival they saw shiploads of troops and supplies headed to Europe. Moving into the interior, and it often took two or three days to arrive at their destination, they saw trainload after trainload of troops and supplies headed toward the East coast. They were impressed. Americans were strong, prosperous, intelligent, and determined to win the war. They were not the stupid bumbling clods manipulated by greedy Jews portrayed in Nazi propaganda. Even the fervent Nazis among the POWs saw enough to quickly come to the conclusion that declaring war on the US had been their Fuhrer’s biggest mistake. Better to have let that “sleeping dog lie.”
The POWs were also allowed to correspond with loved ones back home. They had a lot to say. But many were afraid to send candid and honest letters home about their good treatment for fear that their letters would be regarded as propaganda and that they would be considered collaborators. Furthermore, since their letters were censored by their captors(like US service personnel) they could not write the opposite either, to lie about their situation and claim that they were being mistreated. Mostly they wrote short letters letting their families know that they were OK which was, of course, the main thing. Study POW letters written from the US during WW II and you will discover very little about their experience, a revelation not too different from a study of letters from our own GIs on the frontlines. Beyond “Hey Mom, I’m OK. Don’t worry ‘bout me” they couldn’t and didn’t say much.
An odd thing the POWs noticed about their new home was Jim Crow racism, a sad fact of life in the Southern US where most POW camps were located. German and Italian POWs quickly saw the obvious failure of the US to live up to its ideals when they, the enemy, could eat inside a nice diner or café with other white patrons while their African-American guards had to wait outside or go around to the back door to be fed. They were impressed with the US but they realized in due time that despite its richness and strength, it was far from perfect.
The POW program had its problems. Early on, US authorities assumed that nearly all German soldiers were fervent Nazis. All had taken an oath to the Fuehrer. Those who were not so ideologically inclined were often subjected to abuse by fellow prisoners. Well meaning prison officials sought to protect them by separating these men from their fellow prisoners and sending them to special camps. Fearing that they would be considered collaborators, few wanted to leave their comrades. Most stayed put , even when, on occasion, it cost them their life.
There were few problems of this sort among the Italian prisoners. Very few had any love for Mussolini. They were especially happy to be out of the war and somewhere safe. Hard-core facists among the Italians were rare.
In assuming that most POWs were die-hard Nazis, the prison authorities had clearly been wrong. Yes, some were. But most wore their uniforms not so much out of a strong adherence to Nazi party ideology but out of a more commonplace, simple patriotism and a strong sense of duty. Hard core Nazis among the POWs were a minority, albeit a powerful one in the POW hierarchy. In time prison authorities began to weed these men out and send them to special high security camps away from the rank and file. This worked much better.
It also helped in late 1944 when veterans of the fighting in France began arriving, men with a much more realistic view of Germany’s impending fate. When they told their stories, the old POW residents realized that the US newsreels of allied successes were not propaganda but the truth. By early 1945, the hard core Nazis among the POWs found that they no longer exerted much of an influence. Hitler and his Nazi disciples back home in Germany were clearly doomed. Hard-core Nazis among the POWs began to disappear, a situation not unlike Allied occupiers discovered after the war when civilian leaders were interrogated. Nazis, curiously enough, became hard to find. A man who admitted that he had enthusiastically supported Hitler was a rare bird indeed.
In mid 1945 the European war drew to a close and the US began the enormous job of closing the camps and sending nearly a half-million Axis POWs home. It didn’t happen overnight. They had become an integral part of the US economy! Nevertheless, by early 1947, the camps were all closed and the prisoners had all, except for a handful who awaited trial for their misdeeds during captivity (mostly murders of fellow prisoners) been sent back to Italy or Germany. These homeward bound former POWs were nearly all healthy, well clothed, and the majority, I suspect, had money in their pockets. Furthermore, they felt pretty good toward the US.
By means of the POW program during WW II, the US government had gone a long way in slowly turning a bitter enemy into a friend, a friend we would need badly in the “cold war” that lay just ahead, a vital component of the allied victory planned, constructed, and executed by forward thinking officials.
The country the POWs found was a far different place than the one they had left behind. Dozens of major cities lay in ruins. Many POWs from East Germany had no desire to return home and live under Communism. A lucky few managed to go back to the US, a place they had grown to love, a place where they could make a new life. But the vast majority had no choice but to stay in Germany, roll up their sleeves and get to work rebuilding their nation. There was plenty to do.