Little-Known WWII Facts: German POWs in the U.S.

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn about a part of World War II that many people don’t know: there were hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war (POWs) that were kept in the U.S. during the war.

When I was growing up, I – like many youthful book lovers – read the novel Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green. This fictionalized account dealt with a relationship between an American Jewish girl and an escaped German prisoner from a Prisoner of War (POW) camp in the United States during World War II. This little-remembered history was explored in that book and later the accompanying TV adaptation.

Like many works of fiction, Summer of My German Soldier was loosely based on historical events. During World War II, the United States was home to approximately 400,000 Prisoners of War. Roughly 379,000 were German military personnel. These prisoners were housed in 900 camps scattered throughout the U.S.*

POWs Working and Living in America

For many people, the idea of POW camps on American soil may seem bizarre. This is a part of World War II history not often discussed in high school history classes. During the war, the Allies captured POWs and had to house them somewhere. In many places in the U.S., these prisoners became a part of everyday American life – actually working on individual family farms as well as for larger employers. We associate the idea of prisoners with being locked up and hidden from a community – but not so with the POWs who spent time in the United States during and shortly after WWII. With American men off fighting the war, American women and these POWs helped make up the labor force needed on the home front.

What types of agricultural work did prisoners do? This brief 1946 newspaper article provides one example, reporting on 3,121 German POWs who were assigned to sugar beet thinning in southern Idaho.

article about WWII German POWs in the U.S., Idaho Statesman newspaper article 14 March 1946

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 14 March 1946, page 11

POWs assisted with the shortage of laborers by working on all types of farms. This 1944 article explains that German POWs were brought into Lepanto, Arkansas, by the War Food Administration’s Bureau Office of Labor to pick cotton.

article about WWII German POWs in the U.S., Bellingham Herald newspaper article 3 December 1944

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington) 3 December 1944, page 8

American Resentment for Treatment of German POWs

With the recent release of the movie Unbroken and other similar accounts, we have a better understanding of how our POWs were mistreated at the hands of the Axis powers. So how were enemy soldiers treated in the United States? Prisoners of War housed in America were treated according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. Housing, food and work conditions for POWs were equal to that for our own U.S. soldiers. While this angered some citizens, the Joint Chiefs had hoped that this treatment would be reciprocated for our own POWs held by Germans.** Many Americans considered this fair treatment too good for enemy soldiers. There was much opposition to the perceived “cushy” life that POWs lived in the U.S.

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In this letter to the newspaper editor from PFC Robert J. Kuhn, a U.S. soldier and former POW captured in Africa and held in “Italian and German concentration camps,” Kuhn voices his dismay at the preferential treatment of German POWs and their interaction with American women. In his letter, sent from “somewhere in Italy,” he recounts reading in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes about German POWs living in the United States:

…and then I read: “American soldier gets letter from girlfriend now engaged to German soldier – POW from camp in America” – couldn’t believe it. Then I saw in another one: “German prisoners in America have sit-down strike for day.” Also “POW go on excursions in America.” “POW in America have morale dance.”

Did American prisoners of war have German frauleins? Did we go to dances? Did we go on excursions? And above all, did we sit down and strike? No! No! No!

He continues on by mentioning, approvingly, that French women who cavorted with German soldiers had their heads shaved as punishment. His sentiments are understandable, and one can easily see how outrageous it was to American soldiers to find out that enemy soldiers were interacting with American families – and, in some cases, dating American women during their imprisonment!

letter to the editor about WWII German POWs in the U.S., Dallas Morning News newspaper article 9 November 1944

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 9 November 1944, section 2, page 2

Some German POWs Escaped

Over 2,000 German POWs tried to escape while being held in the United States. Most POW escapees were caught fairly quickly – but there were a few who eluded capture for months, years, and in at least one case, decades. Many German POW who escaped didn’t get too far before they were caught or voluntarily surrendered.

This 1946 newspaper article tells of the escape of Helmut von der Au (in some articles his name is spelled von Der Aue) from Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky. At the time of the writing of this newspaper article, von der Au had already escaped twice before. He had an advantage over other German POWs who tried to escape from camps in the United States because he could speak English. He had a plan for what he would do in a successful escape: “He would steal a P-38 (Lightning) fighter plane and fly to Greenland.” A lawyer prior to the war, von der Au was apprehended three days after his latest escape when he surrendered to police in Uniontown, Kentucky, less than 10 miles from where he began. He walked up to Police Chief Gilbert Page, still in his prisoner uniform, and asked to be returned to camp because he was hungry.

article about escaped WWII German POW Helmut von der Au, Times-Picayune newspaper article 4 January 1946

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 4 January 1946, page 26

Helmut von der Au’s story doesn’t end there. He eventually is sent to Mississippi where he is one of many prisoners who helps out on a plantation. Over time he becomes well acquainted with the plantation owner’s wife and the two fall in love. Running off together seemed like a good idea at the time, but the couple is eventually caught and his American lover, Mrs. Edith Rogers, was held for aiding in the escape of an enemy of the United States.

According to this 1946 newspaper article, the “…27-year-old, dashing German officer met Mrs. Rogers, 37-year-old Mississippi society woman, as a member of a war prisoner labor detail assigned to the 1000-acre Bolivar county plantation of her husband, Joseph R. Rogers. He and Mrs. Rogers became such close friends, von Der Aue explained to federal authorities…that after a number of drinks they decided to leave and be married.”

article about escaped WWII German POW Helmut von der Au, Advocate newspaper article 8 January 1946

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 8 January 1946, page 11

Edith Rogers wasn’t the only American woman to fall in love with a German POW. Joan McBride, with the help of her husband James McBride, assisted Rudolph Joseph Soelch, a former bodyguard for Hermann Goering, escape from the camp he was being held at in Southern California. For six months Soelch lived as “Mr. McBride” and worked in Detroit alongside Joan. Joan’s husband left her when she proclaimed her love for the German POW. Eventually they were apprehended and Soelch was repatriated back to Germany and told never to enter the United States again.

article about escaped WWII German POW Rudolph Joseph Soelch, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 18 September 1946

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 18 September 1946, page 11

Repatriation of POWS after the End of WWII

World War II came to a close with Japan’s surrender on 2 September 1945. Now the work of repatriation of all POWs living in the United States would begin.

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January 1946 newspapers announced that former Axis soldiers would be sent back to their home countries in four months. (In reality it took longer.) The newspaper article below explains that later that month Japanese POWs would be sent out of the U.S. mainland but would not go directly home. Some would be sent to Hawaii for assignments. The historical news article ends by asserting that some POWs did not want to go home. Understandably, due to high unemployment and conditions in their homeland, some German POWs wanted to stay in the United States.

article about the repatriation of WWII POWs held in the U.S., Advocate newspaper article 7 January 1946

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 7 January 1946, page 8

While there were German POWs who eventually returned to the United States to live permanently, there were undoubtedly some cases where they wanted to return as soon as possible – like in the case described in this 1946 newspaper article, where a young POW stowed away on a ship so that he could return to the United States because “he liked it so much.”

article about WWII German POW Host Haufe, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 6 October 1946

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 6 October 1946, page 16

World War II History and Family History

As family historians, we seek to learn more about our family’s lives. As you research your military family and ancestors, don’t forget about those on the home front. I’ve had family members tell me stories of living near POW camps and the experiences they had living in close proximity and interacting with the “enemy.” Now’s the time to seek out these remembrances, or to record your own.

To learn more about World War II history on the American home front, check out GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

In addition to the news reports and first-hand accounts that can be found in old newspapers, several books have been written about POW camps in the United States. They include:

  • Buck, Anita. Behind Barbed Wire: German Prisoners of War Camps in Minnesota. St. Cloud, Minn: North Star Press of St. Cloud, 1998.
  • Fiedler, David. The Enemy among Us: POWs in Missouri during World War II. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2003.
  • Krammer, Arnold. Nazi Prisoners of War in America. Chelsea, MI: Scarborough House, 1996.
  • Marsh, Melissa A. Nebraska POW Camps: A History of World War II Prisoners in the Heartland. Charleston: The History Press, 2014.

Did you or any of your family members have any contact with POWs held in America during WWII? Please tell us your stories in the comments section.

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* HistoryNet. German POWs: Enemies In Our Midst. http://www.historynet.com/german-pows-enemies-in-our-midst.htm. Accessed 17 February 2015. This resource includes a map with POW camp locations.
** HistoryNet. German POWs: Coming Soon to a Town Near You. http://www.historynet.com/german-pows-coming-soon-to-a-town-near-you.htm. Accessed 17 February 2015.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jackie Robinson & Rosa Parks Obituaries

During this October week in American history three pioneering activists died who had a big impact on American society:

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton, American women’s rights activist, died at 86 on 26 October 1902
  • Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson, American baseball player and civil rights activist, died at 53 on 24 October 1972
  • Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, American civil rights activist, died at 92 on 24 October 2005

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. You can use historical newspapers to research their public careers and trace their family trees. The following old newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)

An activist from an early age, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was involved in the abolitionist and temperance movements—but the cause to which she primarily devoted her considerable powers was women’s rights and their equality before the law, especially the right to vote. She was instrumental in organizing the first women’s rights convention: the Seneca Falls Convention, a two-day meeting convened on July 19, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York.

Over 300 people attended the women’s rights convention, whose highlight was the reading and discussion of a statement of women’s rights called the Declaration of Sentiments, primarily written by Stanton. After much debate, the declaration (deliberately modeled after the Declaration of Independence) was signed by 100 of the participants: 68 women and 32 men.

Of the 12 resolutions debated and approved at the convention, the most controversial was the ninth, written by Stanton. It read: “Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” Women’s suffrage was a divisive issue and many of the convention’s participants opposed its inclusion, fearing that an element this controversial would weaken support for women’s equality. However, others argued persuasively in favor of supporting women’s suffrage—and in the end the voting rights resolution was approved.

Stanton met another pioneering suffragist, Susan B. Anthony, in 1851, and the two women were close friends and allies in the women’s rights movement for the rest of Stanton’s life.

This obituary was published the day after Stanton died.

Woman's Rights Loses Venerable 'Mother' [Elizabeth Cady Stanton], Denver Post newspaper obituary 27 October 1902

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 27 October 1902, page 3

This old newspaper obituary included a tribute penned by Susan B. Anthony: “Through the early days, when the world was against us, we stood together. Mrs. Stanton was always a courageous woman, a leader of thought and new movement. She was a most finished writer and every state paper presented to Congress or the state legislatures in the early days was written by Mrs. Stanton. I cannot express myself at all as I feel, I am too crushed to say too much, but if she had outlived me she would have found fine words with which to express our friendship.”

This tribute to Stanton was published two days after she died.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 28 October 1902

Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 28 October 1902, page 6

It concluded: “Mrs. Stanton fell far short of her aim, in what she actually accomplished, just as Susan B. Anthony finds herself far short of the goal toward which she has struggled [the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was not ratified until 1920]. The world is not ready to grant their contention in its fullness, and indeed is still to a great degree hostile toward it, but the two remarkable women long ago won recognition of the principle by which they were inspired, and through that recognition extended the power of women in public affairs to a wonderful degree, and made great progress toward establishing women in a position more equitable with that of men so far as property rights are concerned.

“Work like that carried on by Mrs. Stanton cannot cease with her life, nor can it end when Miss Anthony, her illustrious co-worker, passes away. It is everlasting, and will constantly bring fresh benefits to womankind.”

Jackie Robinson (1919-1972)

A superb all-around athlete and a man of strong principles, Jackie Robinson is most remembered as the African American who broke baseball’s color barrier when he started a game for the Brooklyn Dodgers on 15 April 1947. Despite vicious racial taunts and threats, Robinson played the game with great intensity and excellence, gradually winning the respect and admiration of most of his peers and helping to advance the cause of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

During his 10-year baseball career, Robinson played in six World Series, had a lifetime batting average of .311, won the Rookie of the Year award in 1947, and was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1949. He became the first African American player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame when he was accepted in 1962, in his initial year of eligibility.

After his professional baseball career ended, Robinson continued to break racial barriers with a series of firsts for an African American: baseball television analyst; vice-president of a major American corporation (Chock full o’Nuts); one of the co-founders of an African American-owned financial institution called the Freedom National Bank; owner of a construction company that built housing for low-income families.

Robinson died a much-respected figure on 24 October 1972 of complications from diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease at the young age (for a prime athlete) of 53. After his death tributes poured in for the man who had accomplished—and endured—so much.

This tribute, published in the newspaper the day after Robinson died, told a story about his minor league playing career with the Montreal Royals that showed how much testing Robinson had to endure.

Fear of Failure Motivated Jackie [Robinson], Springfield Union newspaper article 25 October 1972

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 25 October 1972, page 32

“There was the exhibition game against Indianapolis, and Paul Derringer, the one-time Cincinnati ace, was pitching against Montreal. He was a friend of [Montreal Manager Clay] Hopper’s and he said:

“‘Tell you what I’m gonna do, Clay. I’m gonna knock him (Robinson) down a couple of times and see what he’s made of.’

“Robinson had to eat dirt to avoid a high, inside pitch his first time up, but then picked himself up and singled. Derringer decked him again the next time up, but Robinson bludgeoned a screaming triple to left-center.

“‘He’ll do, Clay,’ Derringer hollered into the Montreal dugout.”

This tribute to Robinson was penned by famed sportswriter Red Smith.

Unconquerable Spirit [Jackie Robinson] Pierces Gloom in Philly, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 25 October 1972

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 25 October 1972, page 70

Calling Robinson the “black man’s fighter,” Smith wrote: “Jackie Robinson established the black man’s right to play second base. He fought for the black man’s right to a place in the white community, and he never lost sight of that goal. After he left baseball, almost everything he did was directed toward that goal. He was involved in foundation of the Freedom National Banks. He tried to get an insurance company started with black capital and when he died he was head of a construction company building houses for blacks. Years ago a friend, talking of the needs of blacks, said, ‘good schooling comes first.’

“‘No,’ Jackie said. ‘housing is the first thing. Unless he’s got a home he wants to come back to, it doesn’t matter what kind of school he goes to.’”

This Jackie Robinson obituary article was published the day after he died.

Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson Dead at 53, Plain Dealer newspaper obituary 25 October 1972

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 October 1972, page 61

It included a tribute to Robinson from the head of baseball: “Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said Robinson was unsurpassed in contribution to sports. ‘His entire life was courage. Courage as the black pioneer of the game. Courage in the way he fought for what he believed.’”

Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

When Rosa Parks, an African American woman in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her bus seat to a white person on Dec. 1, 1955, her act of resistance ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott—which in turn accelerated the Civil Rights Movement and forever changed America. It was not that Parks was too physically tired to move that evening, though it was the end of another long day working as a seamstress in the Montgomery Fair department store. Nor was she old and infirm; at 42, she was a strong and healthy African American woman. She had simply had enough of the city’s segregation laws that gave whites more rights than blacks.

Her arrest for refusing white bus driver James Blake’s order to give up her seat on the bus galvanized the African American community in Montgomery. Thousands of leaflets were distributed calling for a boycott of the city’s buses until the Jim Crow segregation laws were changed. The boycott was led by a young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., who soon rose to national prominence as a civil rights leader. After 381 days the segregation laws were finally changed and blacks once again rode Montgomery’s buses—but that victory was only the start of a movement much, much bigger.

The Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, and Rosa Parks went on to receive national recognition—including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

This 1955 news article reported on her arrest, fining, and the subsequent bus boycott.

Negro Woman [Rosa Parks] in Segregation Case Fined, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 5 December 1955

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 5 December 1955, page 44

The newspaper article about the Montgomery bus incident reported: “The woman was taken off a bus and jailed last Thursday night after refusing to leave a section reserved for white passengers. The [Montgomery] City Code requires segregation in all forms of public transportation and gives bus drivers police powers to enforce the law.

“Meanwhile, other Negroes boycotted city buses in protest against the woman’s arrest. Police cars and motorcycles followed the busses to avert trouble.”

This obituary and appreciation was published in the newspaper two days after Parks died.

Rosa Parks Inspired Generation, Register Star newspaper article 26 October 2005

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 26 October 2005, page 1

It reported: “Attorney Vernita Hervey, a civil rights activist, said Parks’ defiance of Alabama’s Jim Crow laws sparked an uprising that ‘probably was the defining moment in African-American collective action.’”

To honor Parks, this drawing graced the editorial page of the Register Star.

editorial cartoon paying respects to Rosa Parks, Register Star newspaper illustration 26 October 2005

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 26 October 2005, page 5

Today there is even an American holiday in Rosa Parks’ honor.

Newspaper Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that can’t be found elsewhere—whether they are stories about our ancestors or articles about famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of online obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover about your family tree and the famous people you admire most!