Prisoners of war in the United States

U.S. prisoner of war camps exposed foreign nationals to a humane system of mass incarceration. Through contract-labor and reeducation programs, the camps played an important role in deepening foreign understanding of life within a democratic society. They also aided in creating an atmosphere of renewed acceptance for immigration in postwar America.

When the United States entered World War II in late 1941, its leaders resisted the idea of holding foreign prisoners of war (POW) on domestic soil. Japanese American internment;and foreign prisoners of war[foreign prisoners of war]Internment camps built by the War Relocation Authority to house first and second-generation Japanese Americans did, however, hold some German “enemy aliens” from various Central American countries, as well as some captured German sailors. Because Great Britain’s capacity for holding POWs was becoming severely overtaxed, the United States began accepting prisoners captured by the British after Operation Torch, the Allied landing in November, 1942. By the end of the war, the number of foreign prisoners of war–mostly Germans–on American domestic soil exceeded 425,000. Italians made up less than one-eighth of the total. Japanese prisoners of war, as distinct from interned Japanese Americans, numbered only 5,435.Prisoners of warWorld War II[World War 02];prisoners of warGerman prisoners of warJapanese prisoners of
Italian prisoners of warPrisoners of warWorld War II[World War 02];prisoners of warGerman prisoners of warJapanese prisoners of warItalian prisoners of war[cat]WARS;Prisoners of war in the United States[04270][cat]EVENTS;Prisoners of war in the United States[04270][cat]MILITARY;Prisoners of war in the United States[04270]

German prisoners disembarking at a New York City pier in 1945, under the guard of returning American soldiers.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The camps themselves were designated as “internment camps” until June, 1943, and afterward as “prisoner of war camps.” Most were designed to hold 2,000 to 4,000 prisoners. Two-thirds of the camps, 340 out of 511, were located in southern states, with 120 in TexasTexas;prisoner of war camps alone.

German Prisoners

German prisoners held on U.S. soil numbered almost 379,000. Arriving in increasing numbers from May, 1943, to May, 1945, they received humane treatment. Their camp facilities included hobby workshops, recreational areas, and PX stores. Meals that met high standards of nutrition were served regularly, until Germany’s surrender, when the U.S. military responded to public charges that it been coddling prisoners by lowering standards. Some of the most severe discomforts in the camps were due not to U.S. guards or policies, however, but to internal political strife among the Germans themselves.

Both German and Italian prisoners interacted with local farmers and industry workers early during their incarceration. Initially, prisoners were allowed to work at paid jobs within the camps themselves on a voluntary basis. Over time, they were allowed to work on military bases, and later they could work outside the camps on a contract-labor basis. In Florida;prisoner of war campsFlorida, for example, many became fruit-pickers and packers, Sugar cane industry;Floridasugar cane harvesters, and potato diggers. In the soleNew Hampshire;prisoner of war campsNew Hampshire prisoner of war camp, Camp Stark, on the other hand, logging supplied outside employment.

Of all the prisoners who participated in paid labor, 58 percent worked on U.S. Army posts and about 30 percent in contract work. The rest held jobs within the prisoner of war camps themselves.

In conjunction with this effort, the military’s Prisoner of War Special Projects Division undertook an ambitious plan for reeducating 372,000 of the German prisoners. Rather than attempt to discredit Germany’s National Socialist (Nazi) system, the program fostered respect for the American democratic alternative and encouraged positive, unselfish behavior.

Although many German prisoners developed a taste for American life, all were required to leave U.S. soil after the war. The last large group of Germans left the United States on July 22, 1946. However, before being finally repatriated to Germany, many were assigned to rebuilding war-damaged areas in England and France. The number of former prisoners of war who later returned to the United States from Germany to stay is impossible to determine exactly; however, their number has been estimated at about 5,000.

Italian Prisoners

Of the 500,000 Italian soldiers, sailors and airmen captured by the Allies during World War II, only 10 percent were transferred to the United States. Although American troops captured Tunis and other North African positions from Italian forces by June, 1943, virtually all the Italian prisoners brought to the United States had been captured by British forces in North Africa and Sicily. They arrived during a six-month period in the spring and summer of 1943, and remained in the United States through most of the next three years.

The political status of these Italians became less clear than that of the German prisoners, because of the Armistice that Italy signed with the Allies in September, 1943, shortly before Germany began its own invasion and brutal occupation of Italy. In Allied hands, the Italian prisoners generally found camp life a benign experience. As with the Germans, some of their worst experiences were caused by internal political clashes.

Before being shipped to the United States, Italian prisoners were divided into groups of high and low security risks, with the former predominating among the prisoners brought to the United States. Few of these high-security risks caused actual security problems, however.

The popular American attitude toward the Italian prisoners was more positive than the public attitude toward the German and Japanese prisoners. This may have been due to the fact that Italians constituted the largest foreign-born fraction of the U.S. population. Moreover, the U.S. military encouraged public portrayals of the Italians as congenial, cheerful, and sociable, to further its plans to organize the prisoners into Auxiliary Service Units. Three-fifths of the prisoners eventually participated in these units.

Because of greater freedoms enjoyed by Italian prisoners, in and outside the camps, many enjoyed social lives that brought them into regular contact with the neighboring American communities. Despite the mandatory repatriation of all the prisoners after the war ended, some War brides;Americanmarriages resulted from social interactions between Italian prisoners and American women. In some cases, the American brides moved to Italy. However, many of these postwar couples subsequently returned to the United States.

The small number of Japanese prisoners held in the United States were incarcerated under higher security than the German and Italian prisoners, primarily in Wisconsin;prisoner of war campsWisconsin and Iowa;prisoner of war campsIowa. Because of the highly negative public opinions of Japanese soldiers, they had few opportunities for engaging in contract labor or outside socializing.Prisoners of warWorld War II[World War 02];prisoners of warGerman prisoners of warJapanese prisoners of warItalian prisoners of war

Further Reading

  • Billinger, Robert D., Jr. Hitler’s Soldiers in the Sunshine State. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. Area study of camps including early enemy-alien internments.
  • _______. Nazi POWs in the Tar Heel State. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008. Detailed examination of state’s camp system within larger historical and political context.
  • Bosworth, Allan R. America’s Concentration Camps. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967. Classic study of the forced relocation of immigrant and second-generation Japanese Americans.
  • Gansberg, Judith M. Stalag: USA. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977. Overview of U.S. prisoner of war camp system, covering its development, the problems encountered, and reeducation programs.
  • Keefer, Louis E. Italian Prisoners of War in America, 1942-1946: Captives or Allies? Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1992. Covers Italian prisoner populations from the time of their surrender to Allied troops until their release, with discussion of their awkward political situation during Germany’s occupation of Italy.
  • Robin, Ron. The Barbed-Wire College: Reeducating German POWs in the United States During World War II. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Study of reeducation efforts in U.S. camps for German POWs.
  • Smith, Arthur L., Jr. The War for the German Mind. Providence, R.I.: Berghahn Books, 1996. Places U.S. reeducation efforts in the context of similar programs in Great Britain and Russia.

Asian immigrants

German immigrants

Italian immigrants

Japanese American internment


War brides

World War II