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From 1942 through 1945, more than 400,000 Axis prisoners were shipped to the United States and detained in camps in rural areas across the country. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

German POWs on the American Homefront

Thousands of World War II prisoners ended up in mills, farm fields and even dining rooms across the United States

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Life in the camps was a vast improvement for many of the POWs who had grown up in “cold water flats” in Germany, according to former Fort Robinson, Nebraska, POW Hans Waecker, 88, who returned to the United States after the war and is now a retired physician in Georgetown, Maine. “Our treatment was excellent. Many POWs complained about being POWs—no girlfriends, no contact with family. But the food was excellent and clothing adequate.” Such diversions as sports, theater, chess games and books made life behind barbed wire a sort of “golden cage,” one prisoner remarked.

Farmers who contracted for POW workers usually provided meals for them and paid the U.S. government 45 cents an hour per laborer, which helped offset the millions of dollars needed to care for the prisoners. Even though a POW netted only 80 cents a day for himself, it provided him with pocket money to spend in the canteen. Officers were not required to work under the Geneva Convention accords, which also prohibited POWs from working in dangerous conditions or in tasks directly related to the war effort.

“There were a few cases when prisoners told other prisoners not to work so hard,” said historian Lowell May, author of Camp Concordia: German POWs in the Midwest. Punishment for such work slowdowns was usually several days of confinement with rations of only bread and water.

“One prisoner at Camp Concordia said a good German would not help the Americans,” May said. “He was sent to a camp for Nazi supporters in Alva, Oklahoma.”

Of the tens of thousands of POWs in the United States during World War II, only 2,222, less than 1 percent, tried to escape, and most were quickly rounded up. By 1946, all prisoners had been returned to their home countries.

The deprivations of the postwar years in Europe were difficult for the repatriated men. The Luetchens, who established a “lively” letter exchange with their POW farmhands, sent them food and clothing. Eventually Luetchen and his parents visited some of them in Germany.

Recently Luetchens considered those experiences in the context of current controversies about Guantanamo detainees. “It was less scary then,” he concluded, but he expressed hope for understanding others, even your designated enemies.

“When you know people as human beings up close and understand about their lives, it really alters your view of people and the view of your own world.”

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