10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II

10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II

Larry Holzwarth - April 24, 2018

When the United States entered World War II the British immediately requested American aid in housing the growing number of German prisoners of war they had taken in North Africa, and in downed German airmen during the Battle of Britain. Despite being unprepared the Americans agreed, knowing that the British lacked the resources to feed and house the German and Italian prisoners in their custody. Ships arriving in England carrying supplies and equipment were soon returning to the United States bearing prisoners of war. Eventually 45 of the contiguous states housed German, Italian, and Japanese prisoners of war.

The Axis prisoners, particularly the Germans, came to consider themselves fortunate to have surrendered to the Americans and British, rather than the feared Russians. American programs put them to work in a manner which indirectly supported the war effort by alleviating manpower shortages in agriculture and some industries. Eventually about 425,000 Axis prisoners were encamped in the United States, the overwhelming majority of them, 350,000, were Germans. Just over 50,000 were Italians and the remainder Japanese. Only about 1% of these prisoners attempted to escape during their captivity, a testament to the manner of their treatment and the efficiency of the American security.

10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II
Axis prisoners of war are marched out of Tunis. Most of them were destined for POW camps in the United States. National Archives

Here are ten things you may not know about Axis prisoners of war in America during World War II.

10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II
Italian prisoners of war look happy to be out of the war as they arrive at Algiers for shipment to the United States. Imperial War Museum

Housing the prisoners.

The Geneva Convention of 1929 governed the treatment of prisoners of war during the Second World War. Under its provisions prisoners were to be provided the same housing and food that was available for their captors. This meant that as new prison camps were erected the guards and the prisoners were provided the same facilities, with the guards remaining housed in tents as long as the prisoners were. Enlisted men were allotted a minimum of 40 square feet of living space, with officers being provided three times that amount of room. Adequate recreational facilities were also provided under the terms of the convention.

After the United States landed in North Africa in November of 1942, larger numbers of German prisoners began to come into American custody. These prisoners were sent directly to the United States after being interrogated and processed by their captors, arriving in the eastern ports. Those with hard core Nazi leanings were separated from others less dedicated to Hitler. Officers were separated from enlisted and further interrogated regarding their party membership. Once the destination camp for the arriving prisoners was assigned they were sent there either by Army convoy or train, traveling in trucks or regular Pullman sleeper cars.

Camps were deliberately selected for their proximity to labor shortages, which the prisoners could be used to ease, their distance from urban areas where there were large German communities, and where materials to facilitate construction could be readily delivered. Many were located on or adjacent to existing military installations. Some were taken over from the Civilian Conservation Corps. The earliest prisoners taken by the Americans during Operation Torch, mostly members of the German Africa Corps and Italian troops, were held for most of the rest of the war at Fort Meade, Maryland. A few camps held multinational prisoners, others were all German or all Italian.

The first Axis prisoner taken by American troops was a Japanese sailor who survived the loss of his midget submarine. He was captured on Waimanolo Beach in Hawaii on December 8 1941. By April 1943, he was one of only 62 Japanese prisoners of war in American custody within the continental United States. More than 5,000 Germans and a bit more than half that number of Italians were in custody. The War Department quickly recognized the necessity of separating Germans who were members of the SS, the Gestapo, and more fanatical Nazis from the rank and file of German soldiery, and the first segregation camp was created in Oklahoma at Camp Alva.

Under the Geneva Convention officers were held separately from the enlisted men (which was also beneficial for security, as officers were more likely to espouse Nazi beliefs) and nationalities were separated in compounds in those camps which housed both Italians and Germans. Officers were allowed to work if they volunteered, but work assignments for enlisted men was compulsory. Workers were paid at roughly the same rate as their counterpart by rank in the United States Army, starting at about eighty cents per day. From this pay deductions were made to cover expenses such as clothing maintenance, as was the case with active duty troops.

10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II
Waffen SS taken prisoner in Normandy. SS and other devoted Nazis were separated from less fervent followers of Hitler. National Archives

Prisoner of War labor

When incoming prisoners were interviewed and classified they were sent to camps where their individual skills and experience could best be exploited by their captors. Prisoners of war worked in a wide variety of industries. They were in canneries and fisheries on both coasts. Prisoners with experience on farms assisted with plantings and harvests. Fuel shortages and rationing made them a necessity on many farms, which reverted to the old fashioned means of manual labor in many areas of operation which had long since been replaced by the internal combustion engine.

The prisoners of war were a welcome sight to rural communities which had lost much of their manpower to the draft and to the burgeoning war time industries in larger cities. Although the Geneva Convention provided that the prisoners could not be compelled to work in support of the American war effort, they did so simply by helping American food production. In the Midwest they harvested sugar beets, wheat, corn, and other grains. They worked in slaughterhouses and meat packing plants, loaded and unloaded railroad box cars, performed whatever tasks were required of them.

In the northeast they harvested, prepared, and packed fruits and vegetables, repaired facilities, and attracted in some instances the ire of labor unions which resented the lower wages being kept down by the cheap labor provided by the prisoners. Many employers found that though the German laborers were slower than their American contemporaries (possibly attributable to communication difficulties) they were typically more thorough in their work. Often the Germans worked outside of the camps using the parole system, unguarded or lightly guarded during the day.

German prisoners working on farms often took meals in the homes of the farmers employing them. Gradually suspicion and fear of the prisoners was replaced with a mutual respect. This was true across the range of the industries in which they labored. Their employer paid the government for the number of man hours performed by the prisoners, the government, through the War Departments Office of the General Provost Marshal, paid the prisoners. They were paid in scrip, usable only at camp facilities, since providing them with genuine currency was a security risk.

The prisoners also worked in infrastructure, including repair and maintenance of roads, bridges, levees, rail crossings, and dams. The War Department eventually classified the prisoners of war in 96 different work classifications and sent them to camps according to where they were most needed. Some German prisoners were even classified and used as teamsters, driving loads of cargo on American roads being repaired by other prisoners. For the most part the prisoners, guarded or not, worked under the direction and supervision of their own superiors, maintaining a sense of military hierarchy and discipline.

10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II
Camp Swift in Texas housed up to 10,000 German POWs as well as serving as an Army training base. US Army

Life in the camps.

Besides the efforts of the US Army and the prisoners themselves to make life as a prisoner as bearable as possible, numerous other organizations provided amenities to the prisoners. The Red Cross and the YMCA provided books, games, musical instruments, athletic equipment, and newspapers. Prisoners were allowed gardening tools and in some cases, woodworking and other hobby equipment. Nearly all camps published their own newspapers, in both their native language and English. Classes were offered in several subjects by local schools and the War Department.

Camps established theaters both for live performances and films. American entertainers sometimes performed in the camps, but for the most part live concerts and plays were the productions of the prisoners themselves. Motion pictures were shown several times per week, sometimes the same films being seen in American cinemas, and other times propaganda films regarding the war and America’s role in it. Among these were the Why We Fight series, and the films of combat in the Pacific. As the war went on, the use of films for the purpose of re-education of the Germans and to a lesser extent the Italians increased.

Late in the war the revelation of the concentration and death camps was presented to the prisoners in mandatory attendance. The reaction to these films ranged from disbelief to despair, and was divisive among the prisoners. Some of the prisoners sneered openly that they were simply Allied propaganda, others were so appalled at what they saw that they denounced Germany and attempted to burn their uniforms. In several instances the viewing of the concentration camp films led to violence among the prisoners between Nazi supporters and those less inclined to favor them.

Throughout the war, as local communities became more familiar with the prisoners, entertainments were arranged for them at local dances and community events. These could be held in the camps or in community facilities such as parks, church basements, school gymnasiums, and YMCAs. As American casualties in the war affected nearly every community not all citizens welcomed the Germans, and security at most events was provided by the camp guards in conjunction with the local authorities. Nor were all of the German prisoners willing to socialize with the Americans.

Prisoners taken earlier in the war tended to doubt American reports of Germany losing, remained loyal to the Reich and the German government, and were more prone to look down on the Americans. Those captured later in the war were better aware of conditions in Europe and found the claims of ultimate Allied victory believable. They were also less likely to be professional soldiers. American guards found many of the more recent arrivals excoriated by the prisoners taken earlier in the war and often had to intervene during accusations of more recent arrivals being traitors to the Reich.

10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II
German U-boat crewmen held as prisoners of war in North Carolina. Wikimedia

Feeding the prisoners

The Geneva Convention required that prisoners be fed with the same caloric and nutritional intake as their captors received. This was to be confirmed by a protecting authority, a neutral party which monitored the conditions in POW camps in the United States and Germany. For the Germans captured by the Americans, this meant that their daily rations were better than those they enjoyed while serving in the German Army. The earliest arriving German prisoners were so surprised at the quantity and quality of the food they received that they could not consume all of it.

Concerned that their rations would be reduced if they did not eat all of the food provided, German prisoners in the earliest camps took to burying or burning what was left. Nearly all of the German prisoners gained weight in the American camps, and though many of their favorite foods from home were unavailable, there were ample substitutes. Throughout the war there were complaints about the American white bread, which they found unpalatable and tasteless. They also complained about American coffee and American beer, which they could purchase by the bottle, though limited amounts were allowed.

Officers were allowed wines with their meals, which they purchased from the canteen which was allowed at nearly all camps. Cigarettes and cigars were also sold at the canteens, for prices much lower than those paid by civilians. Chocolate, crackers, and other snacks were also available. It was not unknown for German officers to invite their captors to share their meal, a practice officially frowned upon by the War Department, but tolerated because of its information value regarding camp activities and its potential for assisting re-education efforts.

The diet provided to the Germans and the interaction with the local communities led to some resentment from the latter. Rationing of food was by 1943 a major thorn in the side of most Americans trying to put healthful and appetizing meals on their tables. The purpose of the rationing was to ensure that the American troops were provided all that they needed and the Americans were bound by Geneva to provide the same fare to their prisoners. Thus German POWs in the United States routinely enjoyed foods which were unavailable to the American population on a regular basis. American resentment was soon being heard in Washington.

The War Department continued to provide German prisoners the same amount and quantity of food available for American troops stationed in the United States for three announced reasons. One was the Geneva Convention so demanded. The second was that it discouraged attempted escapes. The final reason was that it was hoped that the Germans would be encouraged to do the same for the Americans being held in German custody. The Germans were so well fed that many wrote home telling their families not to send food (as they were allowed to do) since their own supplies were so scarce and expensive.

10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II
German prisoners of war are marched to Camp Aliceville in Alabama after arriving in the town by train. Aliceville Museum

Resentment towards the German and Italian prisoners

Despite, and in some cases because of, the work performed by the prisoners in many communities, resentment against their presence was felt and expressed by many throughout the war. Most of this resentment was generated against the Germans and the Japanese, as the Italians found it easier to be welcomed after it was evident that Italy did not pose a significant threat to the Allies. One source of the resentment was that they removed many jobs from unskilled American laborers and union workers alike. Orchard owners, for example, found that they could harvest their fruit for about half the normal labor cost using prisoners.

The same was true for prisoners loading and offloading rail cars. The railroads experienced their last great boom during the Second World War and the ability to greatly reduce labor costs at a time of maximum freight and passenger traffic helped their profits despite government induced freezes on rates and ticket prices. Warehouse managers faced with increased wage demands had the option of selecting the compulsory prison labor, and thus demands for increased wages were held down. The labor arrangement allowed for the War Department to actually make a profit on the operation of some camps.

With prisoners working as dockworkers, meatpackers, carpenters, and in one instance on an assembly line for Jeeps (the government claimed that the vehicles would remain stateside and were thus not part of the war effort) numerous unions had grudges against the use of POW labor. Washington took steps circumvent both the unions and the Geneva Convention. Washington made it a requirement that an employer, through the government, certify that insufficient American labor was available before hiring POWs. Several unions petitioned the government to charge a token union dues fee to the prisoners, to be payable to the unions. That step the government denied.

By early 1944 the prison system had evolved into 155 main camps, with more than 500 satellite camps housing workers who intermingled with the civilian communities. As these workers and the Americans became more familiar with each other, word of the conditions in the camps, particularly the availability of strictly rationed items, spread. Letters to the editors of local newspapers and to congressmen condemning the treatment as unfair were soon commonplace. Word also began to spread of the prevalence of Nazi philosophy in the camps, fed by senior officers. The phrases “coddled camps” and “pampered prisoners” appeared.

By that time the Army had realized that allowing the German command hierarchy to essentially run the internal affairs of the prisoners – thus retaining a semblance of military order and discipline – had been a mistake. As the Normandy invasion loomed and the Army realized that they would soon be dealing with increased numbers of German prisoners, steps were taken to both assuage the resentment of many local communities and to denazify conditions in the camps. This called for the removal of professed unrepentant Nazis from the rest of the prisoners and steps to remove the Nazi philosophy and symbols from the camps. The Heil Hitler salute, allowed within the German ranks until that time, was banned and the Army restored books to the library shelves which had been removed by Nazis because they had been banned by Hitler.

10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II
German prisoners are shown films of the liberation of concentration camps in Eastern Europe late in the war. East Texas History

Attempts at denazification of the German POWs

When the camps were established a goal of the United States Army was to maintain military discipline within the ranks of the prisoners. This was accomplished by allowing the German officers and non-commissioned officers to retain their military chain of command within the camps. Although the officers were sequestered in different compounds within the camps for living purposes, they entered the enlisted compounds for inspections, hearing of complaints, sharing of news from Germany, and announcements of policy given to them by their captors. Internal affairs were managed by the Germans.

This led to the senior officers continuing to indoctrinate their men in Nazi policy, helped by the false information they provided their men that the Gestapo had infiltrated the camps with spies, and that those who failed to continue to support the party and Adolf Hitler would be reported to Germany. Reprisals against the families of men who failed to support the Nazis were certain. The Germans banned what was banned in Germany. Reports of German failures and American successes were suppressed. Those caught acting in ways considered detrimental to the Reich were disciplined.

The discipline was often in the form of beatings, administered by loyal Nazis. These were men who were for the most part among the earliest arrivals in the American camps, the Africa Corps captured in Tunisia, and paramilitary officials taken in Sicily. Violence among the prisoners began to increase in both the main camps and the branch camps established to support the compulsory labor program. In the early days of the prison camp system the War Department established segregated camps (there were eventually three) to which sworn anti-Nazi prisoners could be assigned, but by 1944 these camps were overcrowded and the Army recognized the need to take additional security measures.

In early 1944 the Americans began to remove the Nazis to segregated camps, and took a stronger hand in the day to day internal affairs of the prisoners. The imposition of discipline by German officers was severely curtailed, and required the approval of American officers before it could be imposed. The Hitler salute was proscribed. In addition to the careful selection of films for the prisoners viewing a program was initiated to describe the American democratic system. The War Department introduced the Intellectual Diversion Program (IDP), encouraging attendance with promises of priorities for graduates when the time for repatriation finally arrived.

The IDP was technically in contravention to the Geneva Convention, but was designed to remove the vestiges of Nazism from the Germans after years of being force fed its precepts. It consisted of classroom presentations, films, and lectures supported with printed articles, all designed for indoctrination into western democratic ideals and procedures. It was, in design and effect, a re-education program. How effective it was has never been accurately determined, when many of its graduates were repatriated it was to areas in Germany which came under control of the Russians. Isolating the hidebound Nazis from the prisoners helped ease some of the violence within the camps, as did the comfortable living conditions.

10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II
A prisoner of war camp in North Carolina, where many prisoners worked in logging and on farms. East Carolina University Library

Changes to the compulsory work program

It was clear to all involved that the compulsory labor program was major contributor to camp morale, as well as supporting the American war effort. German enlisted prisoners were granted an allowance of ten cents per day, for their use to purchase incidentals to make their existence more pleasant. Obviously ten cents a day did not go far, and the eighty cents they were paid for their labor was a big help. Nonetheless their officers resented the use of their men and attempted to find ways to circumvent the system by issuing complaints to the Americans and backing them up by ordering work stoppages.

Often these complaints were couched in language which described unsafe work conditions (a violation of the Geneva Convention) or exposed the prisoners to threats from civilians. The War Department, as part of cracking down on the control of the prisoners through uncooperative German officers, initiated several changes to the work program. Since nothing in the Geneva Convention prevented it, the American officers in the camps withheld food from prisoners who refused to work, providing them rations of bread and water, and refused them the maintenance allowance. Those refusing work were issued 18 ounces of the detested white bread per day.

There was no limit to the amount to water such men were allowed to consume, and bread and water was usually sufficient to bring the reticent prisoner back to work in just a few days. In the late winter of 1944 the War Department initiated a program by which workers were evaluated by their employers, with the reports being provided to the American guards and the Provost Marshal’s office. Workers were no longer paid based on their rank in the German Army. Instead they were paid by performance, with some being given less than eighty cents per day, and others being compensated by up to $1.20 per day. The authority of the German officers was weakened further.

By the summer of 1944 many German officers, tired of the boredom and confinement of the camps, were volunteering for the work program. These officers were assigned as were the enlisted men, in accordance with their skills and the demand for their work. With the US Army no longer tied to rank as the basis of its pay scale, the German officers received the same as the enlisted and were evaluated in the same manner. As American, French, British, and Canadian troops assaulted the beaches at Normandy about 7% of the German officers in American custody were working in the United States.

As more and more Germans entered the work program the number of camps needed to house them increased. The state of Wisconsin alone had 38 camps and satellites, placed among a large German community, some of them having gone to Wisconsin to escape the rise of the Nazis the preceding decade. The expansion of the work camps presented the Army with a new set of problems as prisoners of war labored in the fields and factories. Fraternization, particularly with members of the opposite sex, became an issue. In many factories, American women and German prisoners worked together during all shifts, and rumors of extracurricular activities were common.

10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II
German prisoners at work in a Texas field pause for their photograph. North Texas University

Security for Axis prisoners

Prisoners of all the warring powers attempted to escape their captors during the Second World War, leading to harsh reprisals by the Germans and Russians when the escapers were recaptured. For the prisoners on the European continent the possibility of reaching neutral Switzerland, Sweden, or Spain beckoned, and evading German security was possible, but not likely. For the German and Italian prisoners in the United States, Canada to the north and Mexico to the south were both hostile nations. There was a possibility of hiding in the large German and Italian neighborhoods of many American cities, but the likelihood of getting home was remote.

Nonetheless there were escape attempts, including large breakouts, and some were as ingenious as the more famous British, French, and American escapes from the prison camps of Europe. About 2,200 attempted escapes were conducted by the Germans. None of the escaping prisoners made it back to Germany or Italy, and most were captured within a few hours or days, when hunger and exposure to the elements made the comforts of the camp seem a more reasonable alternative. Many escapees simply turned themselves in by knocking on a door and announcing themselves as what they were. The possibility of German escapees was discussed in newspaper and magazine articles, including what citizens should watch for and report.

One such article written by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was discovered by a German sergeant, Reinhold Pabel in his camp library. Pabel carried the article with him when he departed Camp Grant, just outside Rockford Illinois early in 1945. Pabel found the article helpful as a guide, by following what the article informed readers what to watch for, he effectively left behind no trail to follow. He changed his name to Phil Brick, hid in Chicago, and when he was finally found he was married, with one child and another on the way. It was 1953. He was sent to West Germany but allowed to return to the United States and the bookstore he had been running when found.

The Germans held a mass breakout, through an ingeniously located and built tunnel, in Camp Papago, in Arizona. The German prisoners were officers and sailors from U-boats who dug a nearly 180 foot tunnel, hiding the dirt by spreading it across a volleyball court they were building as a diversion. Twenty-five officers and sailors escaped, but all were recaptured. The Germans made their escape in the wee hours of Christmas Eve 1944. The last escapee was arrested on the morning of January 28, 1945, in Phoenix, Arizona. Nobody was injured during the escape and other than some stolen clothes there was no loss of property.

There were no harsh reprisals against the escaping prisoners when they were returned to American custody. Punishments were under the authority of the different camp commanders and unless there had been damage to or theft of civilian property most commanders contented themselves with solitary confinement on bread and water for a number of days equal to the number of days the prisoner had been absent. Where there was damage or theft restitution was demanded of the prisoner. The number of German escape attempts was just under one percent of the German prison population, about half that of the Italians.

10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II
Italian prisoners of war at work on the Arizona Canal, north of Phoenix, in December 1943. Library of Congress

Italian POWs in the United States

By the late summer of 1943 the Italians were knocked out of the war. Mussolini was overthrown and held prisoner until he was rescued by German paratroopers led by Otto Skorzeny and taken to Germany. The Badoglio government in Italy signed an armistice, and Italy became an ally of the United States and other nations at war with the Germans. At the time there were just over 50,000 Italian prisoners of war in the United States, most of them held in camps dedicated to Italian prisoners, but some held in camps which also held German prisoners, albeit in separate compounds from their former allies.

The situation for the Italians was complicated by the situation in Italy. The German Army continued to hold most of Northern Italy, and Hitler installed Mussolini as the head of the puppet government established there in mid-September 1943. The United States further confused the issue with the creation of the Italian Service Units. Nearly 45,000 Italian POWs joined the Italian Service Units, which led to their relocation to sites across the United States. Unlike the German prisoners of war, who were ostensibly not allowed to work on projects which supported the war effort, the ISUs were directly involved in war related projects and industries.

The Italians who refused to join the ISUs were transported to prisoner of war camps and remained isolated for the rest of the war. The Italians who did join were, after relocation, given far greater and ever increasing freedom of movement, and many integrated into existing Italian-American communities. The Catholic Church in many instances played a leading role in helping these men adjust to their new lives in America. The Italians were for the most part still retained in camps, but there were far fewer restrictions on their movement and social activities, and the practice of using the honor system to leave and return to the camps unguarded was common.

Midwestern Italian camps were regulated more strictly than those on either the east or west coast. On the east coast there remained an air of hostility towards the Italians, generated by the fact that Italy’s participation in the war had brought the Italian neighborhoods of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia under harsh scrutiny during the war’s early years. The west coast was where the Italians found their warmest welcome. The west coast was physically and emotionally more closely tied to the Pacific War. US ships returned to West Coast ports for repairs and troops shipped out via those same piers. Anti-Asian feeling was far more common than anti-Italian once Italy was out of the war.

The Italian prisoners of war were repatriated beginning in January of 1946, and by then many had developed relationships within the United States which made them want to remain there. Many returned to the United States after seeing the ruins of Italy and the lack of viable jobs. The number of Italians prisoners of war to return to the United States after repatriation is unknown for certain, but the fact that many of those who joined the Italian Service Units as well as those who refused returned, is well known. As a side note, the greatest rate of attempted POW escapes in the United States as a percentage of the prison population was from the Italian camps where the non-collaborative troops were sent beginning in 1943.

10 Little Known Facts abou Axis Prisoners of War in World War II
A Japanese prisoner is forced to bathe aboard USS New Jersey before being issued fresh clothing. Most Japanese prisoners were not brought to the United States. US Navy

The Japanese prisoners of war in the United States

Relatively few Japanese prisoners of war were held in the United States. This was for several reasons, not the least of which being the relatively low number of Japanese who surrendered. Japanese troops, sailors, and airmen captured in the South Pacific were turned over to Australia and New Zealand by the Americans, who retained title as holding the prisoners and paid the Allied countries for their support. Japanese troops captured during the drive across the Central Pacific were brought to the United States. For the most part Japanese prisoners were cooperative with their captors, and offered what information they knew of Japanese military plans and deployments.

Part of the problem for the Japanese prisoners was the existence of Japan’s Bushido code, which rendered anyone surrendering to the enemy a reflection of shame and failure. The Japanese did not want their families to be made aware of this shame and in that they were abetted by the Japanese government, which throughout the war did not acknowledge the existence of Japanese prisoners of war. American camp commanders, as well as their Australian and New Zealander counterparts, used this to their advantage when interrogating prisoners or applying disciplinary action.

Camp commanders and interrogators would threaten to write to a prisoner’s family in Japan, through the protecting powers, and inform them of the status of the prisoner. Wanting to spare their families the ignominy of their failure to honor the Bushido code led many Japanese prisoners to behave in accordance with their captor’s wishes. Japanese prisoners suspected of having more in-depth information regarding the state of the Japanese government and military were sent to special interrogation facilities in California and Virginia. At these camps, the prisoner’s quarters were wiretapped, and interrogators often used the time honored “good cop, bad cop” technique, but there was no use of physical torture.

At the end of the war the entire Japanese military became prisoners of war, most of them just long enough to be disarmed, and many were placed in work details formed to clear up damage, and dismantle military facilities which remained standing. The US Navy retained numerous prisoners to destroy military equipment and facilities on the many islands which had been bypassed by the leap frogging campaign across the Central Pacific. America retained over 70,000 Japanese prisoners until the end of 1946 for use as work details. The British held Japanese prisoners until the end of 1947, using them to help re-establish the French and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Whether German, Italian, or Japanese, those prisoners of war who found themselves in American hands fared far better than those held by the other combatant countries during the Second World War. Hundreds of German and Italian prisoners left behind records of their stay in American hands, and nearly all of the reports were favorable regarding both their treatment and what they saw and learned of the American people. The Japanese were often astounded that they were not butchered and eaten by the Americans, as they had been told they would be. It’s safe to say that by 1944 the safest and most comfortable place on earth for a German, Italian, or Japanese soldier was inside an American prisoner of war camp.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Treatment of Prisoners of War during World War II”, by S. P. MacKenzie, The Journal of Modern History, 1994

“Prisoners in Paradise: Italian POWs held in America during WWII”, by Camilla Calamandrei, online

“Men in German Uniform: POWs in American during World War II”, by Antonio Thompson, 2010

“Nazi Prisoners of War in America”, by Arnold Krammer, 1979

“World War II camp had impact on city”, by Michael Hawfield, The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, December 15, 1990

“German POWs in North American: The Journey to Prison Camps”, by Glenn Sytko, Uboat.net

“Enemies and friends: POWs in the Tar Heel State”, by Dr. Robert D. Billinger, Tar Heel Junior Historian, Spring 2008

“German POWs on the American Homefront”, by J. Malcolm Garcia, Smithsonian Magazine, September 15, 2009

“Enemies Among Us: German POWs in America”, by Michael Farquhar, The Washington Post, September 10, 1997

“Life inside US labour camps where German POWs were sent revealed”, by Jennifer Newton, The Daily Mail, July 14, 2015