"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 and Japanese.

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 Florida.

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 few privileges.

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 camps.

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 to survive.

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 solved.

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

POW Deaths

POW Escapees

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Page Updated March 17, 2003
Copyright, 1998-2003

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