WWII Snapshots by Jesse Riggs - 2008

The Home Front - Prisoners of War

Since 1962, Lowell May has been pursuing his interest in a subject many people know little about. During World War II, large numbers of Axis soldiers were captured by the Allies, brought across the Atlantic and interred at camps throughout the United States. By June 1945, more than 425,000 Axis prisoners of war were kept in more than 650 Prisoner of War (POW) camps across the United States. These camps are part of American history, but they are fading into the past along with the generation of people who experienced these POW camps and the presence of the POWs.

May and colleague Mark P. Schock co-authored "Prisoners of War in Kansas 1943-1946," a book about the prisoner of war camps in Kansas during World War II. Much of the book is compiled from historical records, but interviews and correspondence with people who remembered the POWs and the work they did on farms and as general laborers bring those facts to life. More than 100 people contributed to the book.

The three main camps in Kansas, holding between 1,000 and 4,000 POWs, were Camp Concordia near Concordia in Cloud County, Camp Phillips near Salina in Saline County and Fort Riley. From these three main camps, prisoners were dispersed to 13 branch camps located across Kansas, from the far southwest in Elkhart, Morton County, to the northeast in Wadsworth, Wyandotte County. The dispersion was heavier in the eastern half of the state.

Branch camps usually held 100 to 400 men, and typically were open for a short time for a special purpose such as a crop harvest. Some branch camps were opened and closed more than once to coincide with harvests and the need for laborers. Others were open year round. The military discipline at branch camps was often less strict. Many POWs and guards favored placement at the branch camps.

As stated in the book, the prisoners were treated according to the mandates of the Geneva Convention. If the U.S. guards were ever uncertain of how a POW should be treated, the safe route was chosen and the treatment of the POW was the same that would be required if the POW were a U.S. soldier. During the spring and summer of 1944, concerns that the German prisoners of war were being coddled were voiced nationwide. At the time, camp inspectors assured the public that the prisoners were only receiving such treatment as allowed by the Geneva Convention.

POW camps were more like Army camps than jails, nearly identical to those used by American soldiers. And the Axis soldiers were not considered criminals being held for any crimes; they were captured soldiers being held until such time as they could be returned to their home country.

May, having served as a stockade guard at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. for eight months in 1962, witnessed firsthand how American soldiers are treated. The only difference between their treatment and the treatment of Germans POWs, he found in his research, was that the POWs could buy beer at their canteen.

Prisoners from the camp performed labor on Fort Riley and worked for area farmers. They even worked on the K-State campus, renovating two porches on Anderson Hall and building offices into the space, as well as doing general grounds keeping and maintenance, something that May stumbled upon by chance.

"I didn�t know they worked on campus until I was interviewing a woman and she said, 'I remember seeing them working up on campus.' So then I investigated a little more and did some research. They've got a file on POWs in the library in their archives," May said.

The stonework on Anderson Hall was so well done that it blends seamlessly with the rest of the building.

The Kansas State Collegian from July 12, 1945 included an article on the treatment of the German prisoners. The journalist wrote:

The captured Nazis who roam the campus in their PW suits are a constant reminder of the war to Kansas State students.

But more than of war, they remind us of the peace that is already won in Europe where they were taken prisoner. The unguarded presence of PWs on the campus gives us a picture of American policies as hosts to enemies, or perhaps we should call them former enemies. The Nazi hosts in German prison camps entertained Allied soldiers with an entirely different brand of amusement.

Contrast, for instance, the huge trayfuls of food that are served to the prisoners here with the one-seventh of a loaf of bread the Nazis fed to our prisoners each day. Contrast the leisurely way they work at cutting the grass on the campus with the way the Germans worked slave laborers.

And then we read of a complaint by an American that German prisoners are being underfed. The man with that idea should have visited the Kansas State cafeteria any noon.

Student opinion in protest against the soft treatment of prisoners runs high. We hope the presence of prisoners on the campus will be a constant warning to students against the complacency that led to isolationism after the last war. Students will make the peace.

May and Schock stated in their book, "because of food shortages in the spring of 1945, the rations of the POW were changed so that they did not receive items that were scarce to civilians."

Tennyson Collins remembers having POWs hoe crops on his family farm, a mile south of Manhattan, in the summer of 1945. They were members of the Afrikakorps, the German expeditionary force in Libya and Egypt during the North African Campaign of World War II.

They were the very cream of Hitler's army," Collins said. "They were tall, blond, blue eyed fellows."

Collins said they were intelligent, well educated and talented.

"In that field east of the farm house, I think we had cantaloupes, maybe watermelons, and there was a group of them," he said. "They were singing in two or three part harmony."

Once when Collins' sister went to borrow a plow horse from the neighbors, the POWs were amazed that such a little girl was controlling such a big animal. The POWs did not speak any English, but knew that Collins� sister liked horses so they gave her two carved and painted pictures of horses.

Collins has another POW-made woodcarving of a German soldier kissing a woman in a yellow dress beneath a street lamp. The carving depicts a scene inspired by the opening lines of the German song "Lili Marleen," written during World War I and originally titled "M�dchen unter der Laterne"� "The Girl Under the Lantern."

The opening lines, in English, are:

Outside the barracks by the corner light
I'll always stand and wait for you at night
We will create a world for two
I'll wait for you the whole night through.

Collins said he heard that the prisoners had a lot of free time, and according to May and Schock's book, all POWs were entitled to recreational activities, including library visits, table games, sports such as soccer and track and field events, crafts such as painting and wood carving, playing musical instruments, listening to record players and radios, and going to movies.

On April 20, 1946, the last German prisoners of war and their guards left Fort Riley by train. At the time of its closing, about 10,000 German prisoners had passed through the camp, the highest number at once being 4,700, which included the Fort Riley branch camps. In the previous year, prisoners helped to harvest the 225 million bushels of wheat produced in Kansas, and their labor brought in $600,000 to the U.S. Treasury. The POWs were a much needed labor source during the labor shortages caused by the war.

Kansas State University Archives and Manuscripts has a number of records and manuscripts pertaining to World War II. Another important collection, the Veterans Oral History Project in Riley County, includes more than 150 oral interviews recorded on DVD and available for checkout at the Manhattan Public Library.

Tennyson Collins with a woodcarving done by a German POW who worked on his family's farm during World War II. The carving depicts a scene inspired by the opening lines of the German song "Lili Marleen," written during World War I and originally titled "Das M�dchen unter der Laterne" - "The Girl Under the Lantern." Photo by Jesse Riggs

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