Prisoners in our midst

Monday, March 9, 2009

In 1941 the United States was ill prepared for war. It had been little more than 20 years since the country had fought "The War to End All Wars." We should have been more wary of the hostilities going on in Europe -- and the Japanese were certainly making war overtures in the Pacific, but both these trouble spots were a long way from the United States.

We were "protected" by wide oceans in both directions. The "America First" party was strong and very vocal. Isolationists and their views struck responsive chords with many Americans. We were complacent and more than willing to let warring parties duke it among themselves---as long as they left us alone.

All this changed on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched their surprise attack on United States soil, at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. We were immediately at war on two fronts, against the Japanese in the Pacific, and against the Germans in North Africa and Europe. Enemy submarines, at work in the Atlantic, proved to be a menace to American shipping, as we rushed to the aid of the English, our staunchest ally.

The United States was quick to mobilize. In an incredibly short time, through the draft (already in place) and enlistments, America built up the greatest fighting force the world had ever seen. Most able bodied men, between 18 and 35, were in the service. A statistic from Phelps County, Neb., was typical. In 1940 there were fewer than 9,000 people in Phelps County. Yet, there were 1,400 young men from Phelps County that went into the service. That meant that almost 50 percent of the adult male population in Phelps County were absent from the area during this 31⁄2 year war period.

The civilians who remained at home were engaged in the war effort as well. Many volunteered for work in factories supplying tanks and planes for the army, such as the Martin Bomber Plant in Omaha, which produced the Enola Gay, the plane that delivered the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and brought World War II to an abrupt end. Food was rationed, as was gasoline, to a total of three gallons per week. New tires and new cars were manufactured "only" for the military. A 35 mph speed limit was enforced on highways -- to conserve gas, tires, cars and roads. Presumably that low speed limit also helped to lower highway accidents, easing the strain on hospitals and doctors.

England had begun to bring captured German prisoners back to England from campaigns in North Africa and Continental Europe as early as 1940, and was beginning to run out of room to house these prisoners. As soon as America entered the war the British began to pressure their North American ally to accept some of these prisoners. This led to the establishment of Prisoner of War camps in the US -- mostly in the South and Southwest, because favorable climate minimized problems and the camps were cheaper to build and maintain. However, there were a number of POW camps established in the Midwest, including the base POW Camp at Atlanta, Neb., with its dozen satellite camps in Nebraska, including the ones at Indianola and Palisade.

Though plans were discussed early in the war for POW camps, these camps in Nebraska did not materialize until November of 1943, and by early 1946 they were closed, and in most cases, destroyed. But over that two plus years the Atlanta Camp processed more than 100,000 German POWs. (Note: The information about the Atlanta POW Camp would to a great extent also apply to Indianola and Palisade).

In the beginning the War Department was not sure just how the American citizens would accept POWs in their midst. As the Camp at Atlanta was going up citizens were told that the camp would house "Concies," Conscientious Objectors. The Atlanta camp housed more inmates than the total of Phelps County.

It was felt that if the true numbers of prisoners were known, the citizenry might well panic. Accordingly, prisoners were brought to the camp in the middle of the night in most cases. (Don Harpst of McCook, remembers a "trainload" of POWs who debarked from the train at Indianola late one wintry night in 1944. From Don's bedroom window, over his Dad's newspaper office, he watched the prisoners "goose-step" up the middle of the street, in perfect formation, from the train station to the POW camp two miles north of town, all the time counting, "Ein, Zwei, Drei, Vier," their footsteps crunching in the snow. As a child he was fearful, thinking that Indianola had been invaded by the Germans.)

The POW camps were quite self-contained, with a Chapel, a theater, a hospital, a bakery, a Post Exchange, a laundry, and repair shops for all purposes. The prisoners were well fed, well clothed, and well treated in their camps -- some said the conditions were much superior to what they had experienced in the German Army, and most were grateful to have retired from the war. It wasn't long before area businesses, and especially, farmers, began to ask that they be allowed to employ prisoners to help alleviate manpower shortages that were prevalent throughout the US. For the most part the German prisoners were good workers. Many area farmers, who were German born, enjoyed being able to converse in the German language again.

My uncle, Rudy, who had a bakery in Holdrege, was thrilled to be able to employ a baker, who was a craftsman of unusual skill and artistic talent. Myatt Volentine, a car dealer in McCook, made a daily commute to Indianola to pick up his ace mechanic, for an eight hour shift in his garage.

These prisoner workmen were paid a wage, according to the Geneva Convention, but this wage was somewhat lower than their American counterparts, so the businessmen were pleased, and the prisoners were pleased because they were once again productive, and making more money than what they earned being idle in the POW camps.

The POWs also made their own entertainment. My aunt and uncle told of being royally entertained at the Atlanta camp by actors, singers, dancers, musicians, and artists that were obviously professional caliber. The Atlanta camp had a 12-piece drum and bugle corps that became quite famous, performing at other POW camps, and even marching in the Holdrege Memorial Day Parade in 1944. The prisoners also formed athletic teams, which vied for "All Camp" honors. The Atlanta Camp soccer team competed on a regular basis with the Indianola Camp team. The matches were said to be quite spirited.

By summer of 1945, with the end of the war, the camps began to be dismantled. Prisoners were sent back to Germany (some against their will).

Beginning in October 1946, the Government held the first of a series of auctions, of 200 Camp Atlanta buildings. The land was sold back to Harold Warp (of Pioneer Village fame), the original owner of the land. He was not allowed to buy the land back for what he had been paid, as he had been told. Instead the land was auctioned, so he had to be the highest bidder. Warp, ever the patriot, donated a portion of Camp Atlanta to the Nebraska Public Television Network for the erection of a 1,100 foot broadcast tower, which still stands. Other than a crumbling chimney and a few broken building foundations, there are few visible signs of the once bustling hub of the Nebraska POW camps.

Note: The Phelps Co. Museum has fine interpretive exhibits, depicting the Atlanta POW Camp, with a reconstructed Guard Tower, which now guards Highway 183.

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  • Well said, Walt.

    A memory worth repeating to show Americans, that only in America is a POW treated better than when he was free, and fighting us. Some may well have hated America, but from all the tales I have heard, most of the POW's had a strong desire to remain in the land of the FREE.

    In remembrance. Arley Steinhour

    -- Posted by Navyblue on Mon, Mar 9, 2009, at 7:36 PM
  • I'm familiar with Indianola's POW camp, my dad worked on the refrigeration equipment in the kitchen area and told me that the cooks were always offering him cake, pie or whatever other treat they were making on that day! I think my oldest sister married a guard from that camp if i remember right, they lived in Michigan after the war, i recall stories that he told of guarding the base with an unloaded rifle stating that the guards could have done nothing if any prisoners had wanted to escape but of course they had it much better here in POW camps than they did at home! I heard that after the war many of the former prisoners returned to live in the area where they were held as Germany was all devasted!

    -- Posted by graywolfen on Thu, Jun 4, 2009, at 9:26 PM
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