"For The Duration:
Behind Fences In Oklahoma
Across the sun-baked plains of Oklahoma in the west and the tree covered,
misty mountains in the east, nothing remains to show a part Oklahoma played
during World War II. The pre-existing buildings that were used, show no evidence
of the part they played in the past. The sites that were built now are covered
by businesses, farms, and ranches. All that remains, are records in the Archives,
microfilmed newspaper accounts, records of interviews conducted and the memories
of the people that lived and worked near the enemy alien and prisoner of war
camps that existed in 26 counties around the state.
As World War II loomed darkly on the horizon, the leaders of the United States
knew that eventually, they would have to commit troops and equipment to the
War in Europe. They also were keeping a wary eye on the Japanese activities
in the Pacific.
Before the United States entered the fighting, the leaders were developing plans
to control the more than 100,000 enemy aliens, German, Italian and Japanese
that lived here. These enemy aliens would have to be interned, should war become
a reality. To this end, officials began a crash building program of camp sites
to hold them.
By summer, 1943, three camps holding enemy aliens were in use in Oklahoma. They
were located at Fort Sill Military Base, McAlester and Stringtown. Fort Sill's
camp was established March, 1942 and held Japanese aliens picked up in Midwestern
and north central states, South and Central America. Of the 700 held there,
none were the Japanese-Americans relocated from the west coast. McAlester confined
Italians, and Stringtown held primarily German aliens, but also a few Italian
On December 7, 1941, the decision whether to enter the war was taken away from
the United States, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The sleeping
giant of the United States War machine, roared into being, aimed at Hitler's
troops in Europe and Emperor Hirohito's in the Pacific. This giant joined with
Allied troops to squash these aggressors in the east and the west.
As the North African Campaign began, increasing numbers of German and Italian
soldiers were captured stretching the capacity of the British Government to
handle them. The British asked their ally, the United States, to take over the
internment of some of these captives. Our government agreed and another crash
building program began. Permanent P.O.W. camps were built, and most of the enemy
alien camps were converted, as the detainees were shifted to other locations.
The major POW camps were concentrated in the sun belt of the United States,
in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and
Originally the military guards and camps were readied to handle Japanese POWs,
but Allied successes in North Africa changed the decision. After a 5 month campaign,
ending May 1943, British and American troops captured more than 250,000 German
troops defending Tunisia. Lt. General Erwin Rommel the "Desert Fox" evaded capture,
but left his much respected Afrika Korps to be the first inhabitants
of America's prison stockades.
Eventually over 340,000 of Rommel's crack command, 51,000 Italians and about
2,240 Japanese troops were transported to the US Camps. The reason only a few
Japanese were captured was due to their preference for fighting to the end or
committing suicide in lieu of capture. Approximately 4,500 of the diehard Nazis
were sent to Camp Alva where they were placed under close surveillance and allowed
The first trainload of POW's pulled into the train station at Madill, OK on
April 29, 1943, destined to spend the remainder of the war behind barbed wire
in Oklahoma, a place most had never heard of. The maximum number of POWs in
Oklahoma at any one time was 22,000. There were 31 camps, in 26 counties, appearing
on lists to the Provost Marshall General. These were permanent camps, although
there has been estimated at least 18 others not confirmed. These were probably
smaller camps included as part of one of the main ones, such as the mobile work
The designated main POW camps were at Camp Gruber, Fort Reno, McAlester, and
Stringtown. As more prisoners were shipped to Oklahoma, more camps were established.
The prisoner compounds were capable of holding 1,000 men, divided into companies
of about 250. Each contained barracks, mess halls, latrines, and wash rooms,
along with other buildings the prisoners used. These camps were surrounded by
one or two fences and had guard towers. American personnel lived outside the
wire in similar buildings. With the fences and guard towers removed, a POW camp
looked like a regular Army camp.
There were a lot of temporary camps in Oklahoma. The prisoners were placed at
pre-existing sites, such as armories, Civilian Conservation Camps (CCC) and
other available government buildings, some were placed at schools, auditoriums,
farm homes and tents.
Only German POWs were held in Oklahoma, although some Italians were sent into
the state to the POW hospital at Okmulgee. Most of them worked in the camps,
at nearby military bases or on farms and ranches. One small group operated the
ice plant for the Santa Fe Railroad and prisoners with medical training worked
at the Glennan General Hospital, which was treating POWs.
The Germans held in the camps in Oklahoma were not all from Germany, although
they were in the German Military. Many were born in Russia, Poland, Austria
and Czechoslovakia, countries that had been over run by Hitler's forces.
A program was in effect to segregate the Nazis and Nazi sympathizers from the
general camp population, that was never fully successful. The Nazi and their
sympathizers that were segregated were sent to camps with higher security. They
tried to keep the general population from wavering on the Party line, using
fear and physical punishment to achieve this. The pressures were great and several
of the POWs that committed suicide were thought to have done it under pressure.
The "hard liners" carried out some "executions". One such case was at Tonkawa,
where Johannes Kunz was "tried" and found "guilty of treason". His body was
found in the compound the next morning. The five leaders of the group that had
"tried" Kunz, were courts martialled by the US Army and executed at Fort Leavenworth
Military Prison in Kansas. Any prisoner that could read or speak English had
to be especially careful when reading an American newspaper or talking to an
American. They could never be sure just who to trust, and above all, they had
The Geneva Convention set forth rules on how the prisoners were to be treated
by the captive nations. There are many stories of cruelty and inhumane treatment
of American POWs, so we know that not all nations followed these rules of captivity.
The captor nation, in this case the United States, was allowed to put POWs to
work in the war effort. Enlisted men could be required to work, noncommissioned
officers could be required to work, but only in supervisory positions. Officers
could volunteer to work, if there were jobs available suitable for their rank.
The Convention accords did not state that these men had to be paid. The US government,
however, decided to pay them 80 cents a day, equal to the pay of an American
Private's pay at the start of the war. They did state, that the officers pay
must continue. The captor nations had to pay the officers at the rate of the
captor officers of equal rank up to the amount the prisoners received from their
own government prior to capture. The pay was to be reimbursed by their home
countries after the war. Enlisted and noncommissioned officers were not included
in this rule, but the United States decided to pay them 10 cents a day, which
would not be reimbursed at the end of the war. All the pay to the prisoners
was in the form of credits to their accounts or canteen coupons, good only at
the camp of issue.
The government charged civilian employers who used the POWs the prevailing wage
in the area, reduced some for the difference in efficiency between free and
prisoner labor and a "nuisance" factor. In Oklahoma, the wages for a POW to
work on the farms and ranches was $1.50 a day. The prisoners could not be used
in areas where there was a sufficient labor force, but during the war, there
were few of these areas and the POWs were needed.
The Geneva accords also stated that prisoners were to receive the same quality
and quantity of food as the captor nation's troops. Foods the prisoners did
not like or was unfamiliar with, was discarded, increasing costs. Menus were
designed with familiar foods of the POWs country. These separate menus of German,
Italian and Japanese foods proved successful. They met the criteria of the Geneva
Convention at no greater cost than American menus and food waste stopped.
POWs were permitted to wear their own uniforms, badges and insignias. By the
time these men arrived in Oklahoma, most of the items were missing or in bad
condition. Whatever remained was carefully taken care of and worn on special
occasions. The US furnished obsolete and repaired American uniforms and any
special or safety equipment needed by their jobs. The uniforms were ok, but
the shoes were something else. Because they were accustomed to clicking their
heels together when saluting, the rubber and composition heels of the American
shoes did not give a satisfactory sound. One of the POWs was a shoemaker and
once he had replaced the heels with hand carved wooden ones, the problem was
In their off duty hours, the prisoners played sports, in particular, soccer,
and fielded some near professional quality teams. Gardening and handicrafts
were also popular. Most camps had bands, orchestras, and vocal groups. Theatrical
performances, with home made costumes and scenery were staged. Most prisoners
did not put much importance on religion, but services were available for those
that wanted it.
The camp canteens, similar to the Army PX, stocked toilet articles, tobacco,
candy, magazines, books, newspapers and at times, beer. The POWs didn't especially
care for American beer, ( in Oklahoma, 3.2 beer was allowed, but Oklahoma was
a "dry" state.), but, it was better than none at all!. The purchases were paid
for with the canteen coupons earned by working.
A common complaint among the prisoners was homesickness and lack of privacy.
Escaping, or the thought of it, played across many minds. Escaping from a POW
camp was not a serious crime, according to Geneva, and punishment was slight.
In a way, it was considered by all POWs, including American Pows, that it was
their duty to try to escape. According to newspapers around the state, there
were about 80 recorded escapes. None were the spectacular ones of TV and movie
fame, most just walked away from work details. They were re-captured within
a few miles. Quite a few turned themselves in to farmers, policemen, or just
returned to camp. Almost all were tired and hungary when returned, indicating
it was a spur of the moment action with no real planning. Some escapes were
spurred on by curiosity of what was beyond the fences or just the pure thrill
of escaping. No civilian or military personnel were harmed in these escapes.
There is a report that one escapee made it all the way back to Europe but, it
is not confirmed.
After the war, many of the prisoners did not go directly back to Germany. They
were sent to England and France to work at cleaning up war damage. Those sent
to France had a particularly rough time. The camps in France were primitive
and the prisoners often worked at hazardous jobs. But, then, France did have
German troops on her soil.
Interviews after the war, with former guards, camp personnel, civilian workers
at the camps, employers of POWs and the civilians that lived around the camps,
tell that the POWs were hard working, clean, well-mannered and not trouble makers.
There were some unfavorable comments, but those mainly concerned the POWs held
at the Alva Camp.
The Prisoner Of War camps in Oklahoma were locate in 26 counties. The larger,
permanent camps were located near Military bases, with branch camps located
near the POWs work locations. According to my count from newspaper articles,
there were 77 escapes and 35 deaths during the 3 years the camps were occupied.
There are still 75 POWs or enemy aliens buried in Oklahoma. Most are at the
Post Cemetery at Ft. Reno, but 3 are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery at McAlester
and 2 more are buried at Ft. Sill. Not all of the 70 men buried at Ft. Reno
were the POws who died in Oklahoma. Two are enemy aliens that died there and
29 are POWs, German and Italian, that died in other states. Ft Sill Cemetery
has 1 POW and 1 enemy alien. Another enemy alien that was buried at Ft. Sill
was removed and reburied in Californina after the war. Four POWs that died in
OKlahoma at the Camp Gruber POW Camp are buried in the National Cemetery at
Ft. Sam Houston, TX.
Information for these pages was taken from the Chronicles of Oklahoma, Spring,
1986, reference to the Geneva Convention of July 27, 1929, Articles 23, 27,
11, 6, 12, 19, 47, 50, personal information from some OKGenWeb County Coordinaters,
Newspaper accounts of escapes and deaths in the counties involved. Compiled,
composed and copyright by Ethel Taylor
POW Camps County Locations
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Page Updated March 17, 2003
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