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The Enemy in Our Backyards

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During World War II, some 436,000 European men filled more than 900 camps in cities just like Rockford and Janesville. Meet some of the local residents who worked side-by-side with these prisoners.

German PWs board a train in Boston that will take them to the Midwest, where they will be placed in numerous PW work camps. (National Archives photo)

German PWs board a train in Boston that will take them to the Midwest, where they will be placed in numerous PW work camps. (National Archives photo)

When U.S. forces first engaged Axis armies in North Africa in November 1942, England had already been at war for three long years and was overflowing with enemy prisoners. Rumors even spread that Hitler might drop weapons to Germans already imprisoned there as part of his pre-invasion strategy.

As a result, the U.S. reluctantly agreed to take custody of all prisoners of war from that point onward. Since it was impractical to house and guard PWs (they weren’t called POWs until Korea) in Africa, the plan was to transport them to America in empty Liberty ships and confine them at existing Army camps throughout the country.

By war’s end, almost 436,000 men who fought against the U.S. filled more than 900 camps in 46 states, plus Alaska. Most PWs were from the German military (more than 379,000), but the population also included nearly 52,000 Italians and more than 5,400 Japanese.

The German and Italian prisoners arrived in three waves: late 1942, from the fighting in North Africa; 1943, from campaigns in Sicily and Italy; and 1944-45, after the Normandy invasion of Europe. The first wave – nearly 150,000 – almost overwhelmed existing facilities, but a crash program run by the Army’s Prisoner of War division converted army installations and Civilian Conservation Corps camps, and constructed new camps from scratch.

Construction and operation of these camps was governed by the Geneva Convention of 1929, signed by the U.S. and Germany, but not by Japan or Russia. This agreement spelled out everything about the treatment of prisoners of war, including space allocations (40 square feet for NCOs and soldiers), meals (food must be equivalent to the captors’ army), allowable punishments, work assignments (can’t be part of the war industry), and terms of liberation (prisoners must be returned home “with the least possible delay”).

Since the convention allowed PWs to work, they were quickly utilized for camp construction and maintenance, conservation projects, and utility jobs at military installations and hospitals. By 1943, however, the Army began to offer PW labor to private contractors to alleviate the manpower shortages caused by the war. To overcome opposition by labor unions, PWs were only hired for jobs in which civilian workers were unavailable, and they were “paid” according to the prevailing wage in a particular industry and location.

The PWs received a 10-cent daily allowance, plus 80 cents per day for their labor, roughly equivalent to a U.S. enlisted man’s starting pay. The civilian contractors paid the U.S. government the prevailing wages, which by war’s end totaled millions of dollars. In 1944 alone, the government received $22 million from prisoner wages, and estimated it had saved another $80 million by using them at military installations.

Prisoners were paid in scrip – wartime coupons that could be redeemed at their compound for sundries and grooming items. (See photo top of page) This was to prevent them from accumulating U.S. cash, which could be put toward escape attempts. They were also allowed to put their earnings in a savings account to be returned at the end of the war. This hard currency had a big positive impact on postwar European economies.

To make prisoner labor available, where it was needed most, the Army eventually added more than 500 branch camps to the already-established 156 base camps at military bases. The branch camps were located primarily in rural areas close to farms and processing facilities, since agriculture was the main industry which used PW labor. Anticipating local opposition to placing enemy combatants in their communities, the U.S. Army kept publicity to a minimum. Families most upset by the project were those that had lost loved ones in the war, or whose soldiers had returned home with grievous wounds. After all, just weeks before, most of the captives had been trying to kill Americans, and often succeeded.

Wisconsin

About two-thirds of the PW camps were established in the South, but many were created in our own backyards here in Illinois and Wisconsin. According to Betty Cowley’s extensively researched book, Stalag Wisconsin (2002), 38 branch camps were built in that state, administered by base camps at Camp McCoy (between Sparta and Tomah), and Fort Sheridan, north of Chicago. In fact, the first PW of World War II to be held in the U.S., a Japanese midget submarine commander captured at Pearl Harbor, was housed at Camp McCoy. It became the only permanent location for Japanese PWs in the U.S., until 1945. At its peak, McCoy held 3,500 Japanese, 5,000 Germans and 500 Koreans. The Japanese were never allowed to work off the base. Sheridan administered 13,000 PWs, mostly Germans, and placed them seasonally or permanently in 41 branch camps throughout Wisconsin and Illinois. Nine German prisoners of war who died in captivity are buried at the Fort Sheridan Cemetery in Highwood, Ill.

Branch camps in southern Wisconsin were established in Cobb (Iowa Co.); Reedsburg (Sauk Co.); Lodi, Columbus and Cambria (Columbus Co.); Fox Lake, Beaver Dam and Waupun (Dodge Co.); Waterloo and Jefferson (Jefferson Co.); Genesee and Lake Keesus (Waukesha Co.); Billy Mitchell Field (Milwaukee Co.); Sturtevant (Kenosha Co.); and Janesville (Rock Co.).

Camp Janesville

During the summer months of 1944 and 1945, a branch camp was constructed on the southwest side of Janesville, on the northeast corner of Crosby and Western Avenue (now Rockport Road). It consisted of a cookhouse, shower and bath buildings, a dining tent, and sleeping tents, all on 10 acres surrounded by snow fence, barbed wire and observation towers. The PWs, up to 600 at a time, worked in canneries in Whitewater, Evansville, Walworth, Stoughton, Fort Atkinson, Lake Geneva, Elkhorn and Janesville.

Maurice Montgomery, age 77, a former archivist for the Rock County Historical Society, remembers hearing the prisoners sing as they marched each day.

“They sang in the evening, coming back to camp,” he recalls. “They marched right down the street. It was nice to hear them. They were just kids.”

Jim Dowd, 80, is a retired reporter for the Janesville Gazette, and remembers, as a 10-year old, hearing the same soldiers singing in German. His mother worked at a cannery in Janesville alongside several German prisoners. One night, during a head count, one of the prisoners turned up missing. The PW had told Dowd’s mother earlier that he planned to crawl up into some cardboard boxes and go to sleep.

“When the guards came around and asked her if she had seen him, my mother lied and said ‘no,’” says Dowd. “Eventually he woke up and they found him. Mom didn’t get into any trouble. She liked the German PWs.”

According to Cowley, by spring 1944, there were more German and Italian PWs in the U.S. than there had been American soldiers in the entire pre-war U.S. Army. By the mid-1940s, almost one-third of Wisconsin residents had German ancestry, and many stories emerged about Wisconsin farmers seeking, and sometimes finding, relatives among the PW population.

Illinois

The main base camps in Illinois included Fort Sheridan (Lake Co.), Camp Ellis (near Macomb in Fulton Co.) and Camp Grant in Rockford. Among the two dozen or so branch camps in the state, those in our area included Lanark (Carroll Co.); Sycamore (DeKalb Co.); Hampshire (Kane Co.); Arlington Heights, Des Plaines, Thornton and Skokie (Cook Co.); and Joliet (Will Co.). In addition, some PWs were sent to Illinois and Wisconsin from Fort Custer, a base camp near Battle Creek, Mich.

Camp Grant, originally established south of Rockford in 1917 and closed in 1921, was reactivated in 1941, using less than 3,600 acres of the original 6,000-acre site. It became a recruit reception center and medical replacement training center during World War II. Early in 1943, a prisoner of war compound was constructed on the southeast corner of the camp, between the railroad on the west and 11th street on the east. The first PWs arrived in August 1943, most captured from Erwin Rommel’s Africa Corps during the fighting in North Africa. Some were U-boat crews and a few were flyers from the German Luftwaffe.

Lester Eckberg, 90, was born and raised on a farm north of Wyanet, near Princeton, Ill. Along with four of his brothers, he served in the Army during World War II. After completing basic training at Camp McCoy, Eckberg was transported on a troop train to ship out to Europe. In Milwaukee, however, he and several other soldiers were transferred to another train which took them to Camp Grant in Rockford.

“There, we got training in how to guard prisoners,” says Eckberg. “They gave each of us a billy club, but said we shouldn’t use it, because of the Geneva Convention. When the first bunch of prisoners got off the train at Camp Grant, they saluted with ‘Heil Hitler!’ The MPs put a stop to that. They called them Adolph Hitler’s ‘cream of the crop.’ We captured them in North Africa.”

Later, Eckberg recalls, the troublemakers were shipped to Albuquerque, N.M., while the “good ones” stayed behind.

“I met a lot of nice people in that bunch,” says Eckberg. “They couldn’t believe that a country at war could have so many cars. Their favorite saying was, ‘If we ever get back to Germany and things don’t look right, we’re coming back to Camp Grant, Rockford.’”

Eckberg became well-acquainted with one prisoner in particular, who vowed that one day he would disappear and never be found.

“He later turned up missing, and we never found him,” says Eckberg. “After the war, I was in Chicago in the Loop downtown, waiting for a train or something. I happened to walk into a bookstore, and there he was. When he saw me, his eyes got as big as saucers.”

Reinhold Pabel was an infantry sergeant in the German Army, when he was imprisoned at Camp Grant. After the war, Pabel wrote a book entitled Enemies Are Human (1955), in which he describes his escape from Camp Grant in 1945. Calling himself Philip Brick, Pabel lost himself in Chicago and wasn’t discovered by the FBI until 1953. At that point, he was married, expecting his second child, and running a secondhand book store. The U.S. deported him back to Germany, but he was allowed to return to his former life a year later. It’s likely that Pabel was the prisoner whom Eckberg saw in Chicago.

Ted Pierce, 89, worked at the Keene Canning company in Freeport from 1939 to 1943, when he enlisted in the Navy to be trained as a dive-bomber pilot. During the summer before his enlistment, about two dozen prisoners from Camp Grant worked in his department.

“They were big guys, compared to me. They wore regular clothes, were pretty husky,” recalls Pierce. “I was 18, they were older than me, and they could speak English, but they never talked about the war.”

Pierce ran the machine that filled the cans with creamed corn. He worked in the Keene building on Monterrey and Van Buren Street, which still stands there today. “The Germans were good guys,” says Pierce. “If I asked them to do something, they did it. I had absolutely no problems with them.”

Other canning companies in the area which used prisoners from Camp Grant were located in Sterling, Rochelle, DeKalb, Belvidere, Hampshire and Rockford.

Janis LaSage Lee, 75, of Tremont, Ill., recalls an incident that occurred when she was growing up in Dixon, Ill. “My sister Joan, brother Bob and I were playing in the backyard when a number of officials drove up and said something to my mother. She made us go into the house and she locked the doors, while a number of men jumped out of the officials’ cars and ran around into our back yard, which was surrounded by bushes. They soon came back to the front, with a man in tow. Later, Mom said that he was a German PW from Rockford.”

Camp Life

German soldiers captured earlier in the war included many zealous Nazis who were convinced that Germany would win the conflict. As the war progressed, however, the German army absorbed conscripts from occupied countries, including many ethnic and political groups that were strongly anti-Nazi. These later captives, along with disillusioned Germans, sometimes came into violent conflict with earlier ones when held within the same camp. The U.S. Army attempted to identify and segregate the various groups, but was not always successful.

In December 1944, a group of fanatical Nazis at Camp Grant tried to murder a newly arrived group of 42 Germans, Poles, Norwegians, Danes and Czechs who were outspoken anti-Nazis. They locked the new arrivals in a barracks and tried to set the building on fire. Officials learned of the plot in time to save the soldiers, and later the two groups were sent to different, segregated camps. By the end of the war, at least seven murders and more than 150 “clandestine executions” were believed to have been committed by PWs on other prisoners throughout the U.S. Our government executed 14 PWs, all of whom were convicted of killing fellow prisoners.

With regular meals, warm beds to sleep in, and no one shooting at them, the overwhelming majority of prisoners did not try to escape their imprisonment. The vastness of the country in which they were held probably played a role in this, too. The Army recorded at least 2,222 attempted escapes, less than 1 percent of the total PW population, and less than the rate of escape attempts at federal penitentiaries. According to U.S. War Department statistics, however, 56 Germans were shot to death while trying to escape.

The largest escape attempt occurred on Dec. 23, 1944, when 25 German PWs slipped through a tunnel they had secretly constructed at the Papago Park Camp in Scottsdale, Ariz. The leader of the group remained at large for 36 days, but the others were recaptured quickly.

While conditions varied from camp to camp, most PW facilities in the U.S. included good meals, adequate health care, and plenty of recreational and educational opportunities. Some camps even offered college-level courses, which were later accredited by the German Ministry of Education. Sports teams, orchestras, cultural activities and a practice of providing foodstuffs to prisoners that were rationed to American citizens, sometimes led to charges that the enemy prisoners were being “coddled.” These practices were defended by explaining that good treatment of German PWs would lead to more desertions from the German military, and encourage the humane treatment of U.S. soldiers imprisoned abroad, an assumption that often proved false.

In fall 1943, the Office of the Provost Marshall General, which supervised the German prisoners, started a formal re-education program for selected prisoners. Called the Special Project Division, its purpose was to “teach” democracy to key men who might emerge as leaders in a post-war German government. While it probably violated the Geneva Convention’s ban on exposing prisoners to propaganda, by most measures it was unsuccessful in changing any basic philosophies held by the prisoners.

What had a greater effect on their beliefs were the informal, face-to-face encounters between prisoners and the civilian population in America, as they went about their daily routines in a free, democratic, capitalist society. All requests to stay in the U.S. were denied, but more than 5,000 German former PWs returned as immigrants after the war, many becoming permanent residents or U.S. citizens. Because of its large influence of German ancestry, Wisconsin drew more former PWs than most.

Repatriation

While the Geneva Convention requires prisoners of war to be repatriated “with the least possible delay,” at the end of hostilities in 1945, farmers and other users of PW labor convinced the U.S. government to delay their return until the completion of the fall harvest. As a result, less than 75,000 of the 379,000 German PWs had returned to Europe by the end of that year. The last one left by June 1946.

That wasn’t the end of the journey for most of them, however. Many remained captives for two or three more years in England and France, where conditions of captivity were much worse than in the U.S., and where they were put to use rebuilding those war-torn countries. Those forced to return to homes in the Russian zone (East Germany) simply disappeared into slave labor camps, never to be seen again.

In August 1991, a former German prisoner of war at Camp Grant, Dietrich Kohl, revisited the site of the prison camp and reminisced with local residents. According to newspaper accounts at the time, Kohl said, “I never did feel as a prisoner here … I couldn’t find any place in the world to live that was safer than Camp Grant.”

What better endorsement of our way of life, and our treatment of the enemy in our backyards?

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