Research into the World War II German POW Camp in Salina turned into a larger and equally fascinating story of the values and ethics of the United States.
The captured German and Italian soldiers and sailors were impressed with what they learned about this country and its people. Equally impressive is the huge number of prisoners of war brought to this country, a number that has almost been forgotten in the common statistics of World War II.
By May of 1945, a total of 425,871 POWs were held in the United States. Just about every ship that took U.S. soldiers overseas brought a load of POWs back to the U.S. The number included 371,683 Germans, 50,273 Italians and 3,915 Japanese housed in 686 POW Camps located in every state except, Nevada, North Dakota, and Vermont. Keep in mind that Alaska and Hawaii were territories. Most of the camps were in the southern states because of the expense of heating barracks.
It is also interesting that the Nazi “true believers” were kept in “segregation camps” to prevent them from harassing and even killing prisoners friendly to their American captors. Many of the POW camps provided help to local farmers and received a small salary for their work. They were never looked at as slave labor. The Italian POWs were particularly noted for volunteering for Italian Service Units to help with the labor shortage in critical areas such as Army depots, arsenals, and hospitals.
POW Camp food was the same as served to U.S. soldiers. Enlisted men could buy beer in camp and officers could buy wine. Many said they ate better than in the German Army. One prisoner reported that he weighed 128 pounds when captured and 185 pounds when he left the POW Camp. They were also provided recreational activities, religious services, hobby, and sports equipment. They were given liberty passes to visit nearby towns for restaurants and shopping. This did create one problem in the south where German POWs could eat in segregated diners not open to black Americans.
Some POWs became romantically involved with American girls. It was illegal for POWs to marry in the U.S., but our bureaucrats in Washington enacted legislation enabling the fiancés of Italian POWs to sail for Italy on troop transport ships with a chaperon. Each carried the documents required for legal marriage and two trunks of personal luggage. Once married in Italy the women could then legally bring their new husbands back to the United States to live. (Helmick is a Serve Daily contributor.)