Working at the Circulation desk gives me the chance to see many interesting books come across the counter. Many times a patron will check out something that I know I’ll want to read when it comes back. “The Enemy Among Us: POWs in Missouri During World War II” by David Feidler was one such book.

 

I pride myself on being a history buff but I hadn’t realized that we had held prisoners of war in the United States, much less in Missouri, during World War II. In World War I, America held about 5,000 German sailors captured from ships, but that was all. But in WWII, after Pearl Harbor, America was in the middle of the war, for the long haul.

 

No one was thinking about POWs at first, but Great Britain’s resources had become strained from their prolonged time in WWII and the amount of war prisoners they were already holding. The United States agreed to help hold POWs, and it was decided that it would be more efficient to keep them in America. Transporting POWs once was cheaper than transporting supplies to the war zone to keep the prison camps stocked, and it reduced chances for escape with prisoners rejoining the war.

 

Almost half a million POWs consisting of mainly Italian and German soldiers, with a small number of Japanese, were held in America. Almost 15,000 were housed in Missouri in 30 different camps. There were four main camps, including Camp Clark in Nevada and Camp Crowder in Neosho, six boat camps and a variety of branch camps close to work sites.

 

Camps were set up not only with housing barracks, but also mess halls, latrines, and recreation areas. The compounds also had POW canteens for the prisoners to buy not only necessities but also luxuries such as cigarettes, sodas, toiletries, chocolate and even beer.

 

Canteens were part of the guaranteed treatment of prisoners under the Geneva Convention. Prisoners received a $3 monthly allowance — the same allowance given to enlisted American soldiers — and could also earn 80 cents a day working. The U.S. Army prided itself on their treatment of POWs not only because of the Geneva Convention, but because they wanted to ensure fair treatment of American POWs and give returning German and Italian prisoners a positive outlook of democracy and the American lifestyle. At times, there was backlash from the American public and media over the perceived lush lifestyle of POWs, especially when the everyday person in American was facing rationing.

 

The German and Italian soldiers were used as labor during the war, helping fill a need for manpower with so many American men serving overseas. They were used to help staff positions in the prison camps, including laundry, kitchen and maintenance duties, and also filled labor needs off-camp as well. POWs detassled corn, picked potatoes, sorted shoes, as well as many other jobs. While the laborers were paid only 80 cents a day, the Army charged the going labor rate for them, resulting in the Army earning millions dollars from the internee labor program.

 

 

One of the most interesting facts that I learned from this book was that at the end of the war, the POWs were not immediately shipped back home and released. It took over a year after the end of the war for the last German soldier to be shipped back overseas. Once returned to Europe, the Germans were required to work in Great Britain, France and five other countries to help rebuild their economy and infrastructure, and to punish the Nazis. America finally had to put pressure on France in April 1947 to release the POWs they were still holding as laborers.

 

I was also fascinated to learn that prisoners of war were treated much nicer and more humanely than the Japanese-Americans held in U.S. internment camps during this same time period. Because the Japanese-Americans were citizens and not POWs, the Geneva Convention rules of treatment did not apply to them. While America can be proud of our treatment of prisoners of war, our treatment of our own citizens was shameful.

 

While no numbers have been tallied, quite a few Italian and German POWs returned to America to live after the end of the war because of the positive impression they gained from their time as prisoners. Many others wrote back and forth with not only their guards but other Americans they became friends with during their internment. There have been POWs reunions with prisoners returning to see the camps they called home during WWII.

 

This is a wonderful book for anyone who would like to learn more about the Italians and Germans who lived and worked in Missouri as POWs. David Fiedler has done a great job researching this topic and has included some wonderful pictures that bring the time period alive. You can find this book at the Joplin Public Library in our new nonfiction section.enemy

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