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How WWII German POWs fared in Grand Forks

During World War II, hundreds of German and Italian prisoners of war were held in camps throughout the Red River Valley, Kenneth Dawes, a retired UND professor, told a group of more than 100 who attended the "Entertaining History" presentation Su...

Nazi banner
FILE PHOTO: This Nazi banner was brought home from Germany after World War II by Edgerton, Minn., U.S. Army veteran Art Broekhuis. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)
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During World War II, hundreds of German and Italian prisoners of war were held in camps throughout the Red River Valley, Kenneth Dawes, a retired UND professor, told a group of more than 100 who attended the "Entertaining History" presentation Sunday at the Myra Museum in Grand Forks.

The POWs were responsible for easing the severe labor shortage that plagued the U.S. agriculture, logging and canning industries during a time when young American men were away fighting Nazi Germany and the Axis powers in Europe and north Africa.

Speaking to an audience that filled much of the museum's main floor, Dawes described the conditions in the POW camps, which were usually former CCC camps and unused fairground buildings.

POW camps were established in Grand Forks and Grafton, N.D., and Ada, Warren, Crookston and Moorhead, Minn., and were among the many branch camps in a four-state region that were overseen by personnel at a base camp in Algona, Iowa, where the area POW history has been preserved.

In the U.S., 700 German POW camps were opened in 46 states, Dawes said. The network included 155 base camps and 511 branch camps. The guard-to-prisoner ratio was about 1/20.

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"Small camps had about 50 POWs," he said. "There were 585 at the camp at Fairmont, Minn."

In Grand Forks, 280 POWs were housed at the armory on the UND campus.

Criteria for camp site selection included being "away from industrial areas, a mild climate, and sites where the POWs could work to alleviate (labor) shortages," he said.

From 1942 to 1946, a total of 425,000 POWs were held in the U.S., a vast majority of them German but also Italians and Japanese.

In the early years of the war, of the German POWs "most were seasoned soldiers," he said, noting that later, after the Normandy campaign, Hitler "was throwing everything he could (into the military effort)-the young, the old, whatever."

There was little space or resources for holding POWs in Europe, Dawes said. "And at the same time, there was great need in the U.S. for agricultural labor."

In describing the Red River Valley's bumper crop of 1945, Dawes said, "Local growers were in a near panic" about how they would get the crop in.

POWs were brought in to help and "literally saved the potato and beet harvest that year."

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Many POWs were not dangerous or posed no security risk, Dawes said, noting that the POW population was divided among the Nazi and SS units (who were not housed in the area); those who just wanted out of the war, and an "anti-Nazi" group that including socialists, communists and anarchists.

International rules governing the treatment of POWs required that they could not work in any capacity directly related to the war effort, their work could not be dangerous, and they had to be paid and given one day of rest each week, Dawes said. They also could not be in competition with local workers.

Prisoners had access to libraries, church services and recreational activities. Some put on plays or organized orchestras and bands. In New Ulm, Minn., noted for having many residents of German descent, a POW band regularly entertained the locals with German music.

Out of their associations with their guards, close friendships sprang up, Dawes said.

"After the war a number of reunions occurred," he said. "There were letters exchanged and citizenship sponsorship."

Some people resented the way POWs were treated here, and "felt they were being molly-coddled," Dawes said, but officials maintained that treating the POWs well would protect American POWs from harsh treatment.

Officials also were intent on "installing democratic beliefs" that POWs would take back to their home countries. And further, they believed that once enemy soldiers knew how they'd be treated by the U.S., they would more readily surrender.

Fewer than one percent of German POWs in the U.S. attempted to escape, Dawes said.

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"To a German soldier then, being taken prisoner by U.S. troops amounted to winning a ticket to peace and fair treatment," he said, quoting Hartmut Lang, the Boston consulate general of the Federal Republic of Germany.

"Many POWs went home with affection for the United States, a familiarity with the English language, and at least some money from savings," Dawes said.

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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