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During World War II, the United States established many prisoner of war (POW) camps on its soil for the first time since the Civil War. By 1943, Arkansas had received the first of 23,000 German and Italian prisoners of war, who would live and work at military installations and branch camps throughout the state.
The presence of POW camps in the United States was due in part to a British request to alleviate the POW housing problems in Great Britain. Initially, the U.S. government resisted the idea of POW camps on its soil. The huge numbers of German and Italian POWs expected to occupy the camps created many problems for the federal government and the military. The military did not have the experience or manpower to maintain camps with large POW populations. Most of the skilled military personnel fluent in German and Italian were fighting overseas. Government officials feared that housing so many prisoners could create security problems and heighten fears among Americans at home.
Establishing and managing POW camps in the United States was challenging on many levels, but organizing prison camps overseas created problems of its own. Supervising large groups of prisoners in Europe while adhering to the POW treatment policies established by the Geneva Conventions diverted food, transportation, and medical resources from the American war effort overseas. Eventually, the United States reasoned that keeping prisoners of war in the United States would be an efficient use of military resources.
To alleviate some of the security concerns in metropolitan areas and calm citizens’ fears, the United States housed prisoners in military installations and federal facilities throughout the South and Southwest. About 425,000 captured Axis troops were sent to the United States for internment in more than 500 camps. Nearly 23,000 captured troops, mostly Germans and Italians from Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, were sent to POW camps in Arkansas. Camp Robinson in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), Camp Chaffee in Fort Smith (Sebastian County), and Camp Dermott in Dermott (Chicot County) were the state’s primary centers for Germans. The remote locality of Camp Dermott in southeast Arkansas, previously the Jerome Relocation Center for Japanese Americans, made it the perfect site to house German officers, while Camp Monticello in Drew County housed Italians. The Stuttgart Army Air Field in Stuttgart (Arkansas County) hosted German and Italian POWs.
Camp Robinson was regarded nationally as a model camp. Living conditions in the camps were pleasant under the circumstances and included barrack housing, recreational activities, and creative and educational opportunities. Soccer was a popular sport among prisoners. POWs also performed theatrical plays and musical concerts. But it was not all fun and games. The POWs were required to work in and around the camp, earning eighty cents a day for their labor. Their duties included working in the camp cafeteria, in grounds maintenance, and on local construction projects. POWs could use their wages in the camp store to buy toiletries, candy, cigarettes, and even beer.
Many young men left Arkansas during World War II to serve in the military or find jobs in defense-related industries. Consequently, a labor shortage occurred in the farming and timber industries. To alleviate these shortages, prisoners supplemented the farm and labor forces at branch camps throughout Arkansas, mostly in the Delta and southern regions. In many cases, facilities from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) served as barracks for the POWs at the branch camps. Each day, trucks of prisoners were transported to farms and timber sites to chop cotton, cut wood, and perform other chores to help stabilize the economy.
There were few escape attempts because of the remote location of the state. Most POWs resigned themselves to a relatively comfortable existence in the camps. This lifestyle caused many citizens to accuse the military of coddling the enemy. Americans were subject to rationing of food and other items, while POWs were provided a steady diet of good food and access to many name-brand items, such as cigarettes, that were unavailable to the general population. Additionally, many Americans whose relatives were killed or captured overseas were hostile to the prisoners.
To ease the transition between the period of civilian labor shortage and the return of U.S. soldiers, several POW camps remained in operation for a year after the war. Eventually, the camps were dismantled around the summer of 1946, and the prisoners were allowed to return to Europe. The fair and kind treatment experienced by German and Italian prisoners had a lasting impact on them. After repatriation, many former prisoners returned to the United States to launch professional careers or to renew acquaintances with their former captors.
For additional information:
Evatt, Anna R., and Phillip Bruce McMath. “Friedenstal: A Historic Archeological Investigation of a Former Prisoner of War Camp.” Pulaski County Historical Review 60 (Summer 2012): 51–60.
Faust, Kay. “Remembrances of the Prisoner of War Camp in West Helena, Arkansas.” Phillips County Historical Quarterly 16 (September 1978): 31–39.
Page, Bert,and Ken B. Harper. “Achtung! WWII German POWs in Pope County.” Pope County Historical Association Quarterly 45 (July and December 2011): 10–12.
“Prisoners of War at Camp Robinson—A Document.” Pulaski County Historical Review 39 (Winter 1991): 74–78.
Pritchett, Merrill R., and William L. Shea. “The Afrika Korps in Arkansas, 1943–1946.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 37 (Spring 1978): 3–22.
Schnedler, Jack. “Comfortable Confinement.”Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 12, 2013, pp. 1H, 6H.
Shea, William L., ed. “A German Prisoner of War in the South: The Memoir of Edwin Pelz.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 44 (Spring 1985): 42–55.
Smith, Calvin C. “The Response of Arkansans to Prisoners of War and Japanese.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 53 (Autumn 1994): 340–66.
Voss, Larry D. “The Prisoner of War Camps in Northeast Arkansas.” Craighead County Historical Quarterly 7 (Summer 1969): 11–14.
Ward, Jason Morgan. “‘Nazis Hoe Cotton’: Planters, POWs, and the Future of Farm Labor in the Deep South.” Agricultural History 81 (Fall 2007): 471–492.
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Last Updated 4/27/2016
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