Little has been written about the six million people interned in prison camps around the world between 1939 and 1945. We are aware that the Allies and the Axis powers held one another’s armed forces as military prisoners of war (POWs). The Axis powers also confined millions of civilian prisoners in death or concentration camps. In addition, the Axis imprisoned Russians, Slavs, European Jews, Gypsies, medically or physically handicapped persons, non-Jewish intellectuals, and religious leaders. Even the United States interned its own citizens in camps throughout America. Over 125,000 Japanese Americans and 11,000 German Americans were held in the camps. Most were naturalized U.S. citizens. Like military camps, these civilian sites were also surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.In 1944 when a German POW camp was built in his hometown, the author, as a young boy, became fascinated with POWs. During the last two decades, Gary Slaughter has authored five Cottonwood novels set on the American home front during the last five seasons of World War II, each containing POW storylines. Following book talks, most attendees’ questions related to POWs. His extensive research resulted in this captivating book.A largely unknown component of World War II history.
Read on for an interview with Gary Slaughter.
Q. How did you become interested in the subject of POWs in America?
A. When I was in grade school, my best friend, Billy Curtis, and I took a shortcut through the parking lot of a canning factory in our neighborhood. On our way to school, we observed German POWs unloading truckloads of fruits and vegetables and carrying them into the factory where they were processed into cans or jars of fruit and vegetables.
The vast majority of our POWs were young men who seemed to be having the time of their lives. They befriended us and, in a way, we became like their younger brothers. They even invited us into the canning factory to join them for lunch in their dining hall, of course with the consent of the Army guards who were armed with submachine guns.
We loved being accepted by this group of smiling, blond haired, and blue-eyed young men. This experience began my lifelong interest in POWs.
In the 1980s, as an expert on the subject of corporate information technology, I was invited to consult to many European companies. On two occasions, I met high level executives who were eager to discuss the times they had experienced as POWs in America.
Q. How did the United States enter into the POW business?
A. In 1943, Americans landed in North Africa to join the British who were fighting there and had captured many Germans and Italians. The British had few materials to construct POW camps and couldn’t spare men to guard them. So, the United States agreed to take custody of 50,000 POWs. They were shipped back to America on the empty Liberty ships that had just off-loaded American troops and equipment in Algeria and Morocco.
The United States had no facilities to house prisoners in America because our primary focus was on the build-up of our armed forces. But, within weeks, a construction program for POW camps was submitted to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These camps were to be built on American military bases and on the hundreds of abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camps.
In the 1940s, small towns across America, such as my hometown of Owosso, Michigan, were among the 940 American communities where permanent POW base camps and branch camps were established.
To prevent mass escapes, the prisoners were dispersed widely in 155 base camps and 785 branch camps located all over the country, at least 170 miles from the coast and 150 miles from the Canadian and Mexican borders.
When World War II ended, there were some 5,000 Japanese, 51,000 Italian, and 379,000 German POWs for a total of 435,000 POWs in America. These were in addition to the huge number of POWs in Allied camps in both Europe and Asia.
Q. Can you talk more about the POW camp in your hometown of Owosso, Michigan?
A. In 1944, when I was 5 years old, a German POW branch camp for 2,000 POWs was established on the grounds of an auto racetrack about four miles west of Owosso. The camp was about 100 yards square and was surrounded by two (inside and outside) high, barbed wire fences with watch towers.
On Sundays after church, Owosso citizens drove their families out to the camp and slowly drove around the perimeter to observe the German POWs inside.
The POWs were housed in large tents. They lived there from spring until winter, working on farms and in factories in the area. In the winter months, they returned to their base camp near Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Q. The vast majority of prisoners in POW camps were enlisted men. According to the Geneva Convention, they were required to work. However, that work could not be demeaning, dangerous or defense-related. Prisoners worked the same hours as their American counterparts, eight hours a day and six days a week, in jobs such as farming, forestry, and food processing. And, POWs were paid for their work. But what was life like for an imprisoned officer?
A. Some German officers in American POW camps volunteered to do manual labor, just to keep in shape and pass the time.
All officers were provided fine quarters, a garden, and an American, German-speaking GI to assist them. They were also served better food than the enlisted POWs. Officers were even provided a car, driven by their GI, to tour the countryside. But they had to swear not to attempt to escape. Of the hundreds of German officers imprisoned, none ever attempted to escape.
In short, because of the fine treatment, most POW officers rather enjoyed their stay In America. Needless to say, the Germans preferred being in an American POW camp to fighting Russians in the dead of winter. And we acquired much information from the personal GIs assigned to them.
Q. You’ve talked about how German POWs were treated here in the United States, but how were American POWs treated in German POW Camps?
A. Germany was our only WWII enemy to sign the Geneva Convention. This document spelled out how enemy POWs were to be treated. Japan and Italy did not sign. On balance American POWs in German camps were treated very well as compared to Americans held in Japanese camps. Unfortunately, when it appeared that Germany was losing the war, treatment of our POWs there worsened considerably.
Q. After the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States suspected that Japanese Americans living here might act as saboteurs or espionage agents, so the United States even imprisoned its own citizens. During the war, these citizens included some 30,000 Japanese Americans. Can you discuss that?
A. Yes. This was tragic. A War Relocation Authority was established. Its mission was – and I quote – “to take all people of Japanese descent into custody, surround them with troops, prevent them from buying land, and return them to their former homes at the close of the war.”
On March 28, 1942, these Japanese Americans were forced to sell their property within two weeks. Many of them were business professionals, doctors, and lawyers.
Conditions at the camps were sparse. They were forced to live in uninsulated barracks furnished with only cots and coal-burning stoves. Residents used common bathroom and laundry facilities. Hot water was usually limited.
They set up schools, churches, farms, and newspapers. Children played sports and engaged in various activities. These Japanese-Americans spent as long as three years living in the camps.
Finally, in December 1944, internees could return to their homes, but most remained in the camps for another year because of anti-Japanese sentiment in America. About 55,000 returned to life outside the barbed wire. Those who returned to the West Coast found their property vandalized, farms gone to seed, and businesses bankrupt.
Q. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
A. It’s been extremely hard work but worth every drop of perspiration that has fallen from my brow.
Positive and enthusiastic feedback from my readers is more than I ever thought I would be fortunate enough to enjoy during these last years of my life.
My advice to aspiring authors: Don’t sell yourself short. I never had any idea that I would be a respected author of eight books, both fiction and non-fiction. Simply put, don’t underestimate your ability until you’ve given it good try.
Purchase your copy of WW II POWs in America and Abroad here.
Gary Slaughter is the author of “WWII POWs in America and Abroad” (Fletcher House Publishers, Nov. 11, 2021). He was born and raised in Owosso, Michigan. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he served seven years during the Cold War as a Naval officer, principally on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) destroyers. Following a distinguished military career, he became an expert on managing corporate information technology and consulted to clients worldwide. In 2002, Slaughter put his career on hold and began to write the award-winning Cottonwood series of five novels, depicting life on the American homefront during the last five seasons of World War II. In 2016, his critically-acclaimed memoir, “Sea Stories,” was published. The book’s 60 vignettes recall Slaughter’s life in the Navy. One vignette tells of the once top-secret role he played in avoiding an all-out nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis.