WILLMAR, Minn. — During World War II, nearly 400,000 prisoners of war — Germans, Italians and even some Japanese — found themselves in the United States, spread out across 155 POW base camps and hundreds of branch camps in 44 states, including Minnesota.
"It is an interesting, kind of unknown part of Minnesota history," said Colleen Gengler, a volunteer at the Murray County Historical Museum who has researched the topic. Gengler presented on the POW camps June 27 at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society in Willmar.
One such POW branch camp was located in Olivia, about 26 miles south of Willmar. It was open twice during the war and was one of the first POW camps in Minnesota, along with a camp in Princeton.
"They were test runs in Minnesota," Gengler said.
From September to October 1943, the Olivia camp housed Italian prisoners. A wave of German POWs populated the camp from August to November 1945. The POWs mostly worked in the city's canning company, but could also do other work like farm labor if needed. There was also a camp in Bird Island, a map Gengler used in her presentation showed.
The POWs were used for labor due to a shortage of working men in the states because of the war, Gengler said. They didn't take jobs from Americans, but filled positions when there weren't enough workers.
"We really needed them to fill the jobs," Gengler said.
Prisoners, and only those who were ranked lower than a sergeant, worked in a wide range of businesses including farm, canning and logging. However, they could not work in anything directly connected to defense, like munition factories, Gengler said.
"The prisoners were really an economic boon to this country. We could not have raised the crops we did, produced the kind of things we did without the POWs," Gengler said.
When the war began, the United States decided to follow the Geneva Convention rules on the treatment of prisoners of war. The convention laid out how prisoners were suppose to be fed, clothed, housed and treated.
"The U.S. chose to follow those rules very, very closely in the hopes other countries would treat our U.S. military prisoners of war in the same manner," Gengler said.
Axis prisoners of war were paid 80 cents an hour for their labor at the camps. They also received clothing, housing and food. The camps provided other activities to keep the prisoners busy when they were not working like crafts, games, musical instruments and books.
"There were several camps where they talked about having small orchestras. They put on plays," Gengler said.
Overall, she said, the POWs were treated a lot like how regular U.S. military personnel would have been treated.
"The military wanted them in good shape. They wanted them taken care of," Gengler said.
While sometimes the prisoners did put on some acts of defiance, including planting flowers in the shape of a swastika, throughout the war there were few issues with the prisoners, Gengler said.
In fact, sometimes the prisoners, guards and communities would form bonds and friendships. The Italian prisoners at the Olivia camp were allowed to attend Mass at the Catholic Church in town and even cooked up a pasta dinner for the town, Gengler said.
"There was goodwill toward the community," Gengler said.
At the end of the war, the prisoners were required to return to their home countries, which had been decimated by the war. Many wrote back to guards, commanders and citizens in the United States, looking for help. A significant number of those POWs would one day immigrate back to the United States, Gengler said.
Throughout her research, Gengler said she was touched by how everyone pulled together to get the job done during the labor shortage, whether it was POWs, migrant workers or regular farm workers.
"What struck me was the collaboration, all these people worked together. They shifted jobs, they went where they were needed," Gengler said. "People worked wherever they were needed. Just a lot of cooperation."
Finding information about what took place at the POW camps can be difficult, Gengler said. Technically there was supposed to be no fraternization between prisoners and their guards or community and photos were not allowed. Thankfully those rules were flouted on occasion, allowing for a look into what life at the camps was like.
"We only have what was written down," said Gengler, whose own family used POW labor at their farm during the war. Today she wishes she had asked more questions about that time in her family's history. "It is a really interesting story."