Prisoners of War in Nebraska

One of the most interesting histories I have uncovered recently in my research is the history of World War II prisoner of war camps on the Great Plains. Hundreds of thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war were housed in the United States starting in 1943. The Great Plains provided an ideal location for the POW camps: the region was remote and far from coastlines, many areas were far from major military outposts, and the region’s agricultural areas were suffering the loss of workers due to the war, which had created a labor shortage that prisoners could fill. R. Douglas Hurt’s The Great Plains During World War II introduced me to the story of these prisoners. In his article for Nebraska History, “Prisoners of War in Cheyenne County, 1943-1946,” Ralph Spencer notes that Nebraska had twenty POW camps during the war. Near the town of Scottsbluff, on land that has now been returned to pasture, stood one of two major POW base camps in western Nebraska (the other was located at Fort Robinson).

Many of the prisoners processed through Camp Scottsbluff were later located in smaller, 300-man branch camps, many located close by in communities such as Bayard and Bridgeport. Under the Geneva Convention, officers who were prisoners could not be forced to work, although they could volunteer. Enlisted men could work so long as the labor did not directly aid the war effort and the work was not demeaning or the conditions were similar to those experienced by civilian laborers. Many of the German and Italian prisoners in Nebraska worked on neighboring farmers, including sugar beet farmers in the North Platte Valley. This was an incredible boon for farmers, who faced a severe labor shortage as young men joined the military and many other agricultural workers left for higher-paying defense industry jobs in the cities. While migrant labor, particularly from Mexican-Americans and the Bracero Program, helped with the shortage, it did not supply all the labor farmers needed. Prisoners of war offered accessible, affordable labor, even if in many cases the quality and efficiency of their work was much poorer than that of experienced agricultural laborers.

In contrast to the racism that Nebraskans often displayed toward Mexican migrant workers, many farmers were much more receptive toward German and Italian prisoners. Farmers often treated their prison workforce to home-cooked meals, engaged them in conversation, and sometimes even maintained friendships via correspondence long after the prisoners returned home. I found this very unusual considering that many of these farmers likely had sons fighting the Germans and Italians in Europe. Although the federal government classified Mexican workers as “white,” many residents of the Great Plains did not view them as white. Most Nebraskans were unwilling to surmount the language and culture barriers with their Mexican employees, but residents were more likely to treat European prisoners of war as equals. Similarity of cultural background and even language (since many residents of the Plains were themselves descendants of immigrants, including large numbers of ethnic Germans), may have accounted for some of this, but still does not dismiss the attitudes of Nebraskans.

These prisoners of war were only in Nebraska for a few short years. In 1946, only three years after the first prisoners arrived, the camps closed in and all prisoners were repatriated. Despite the prisoners’ brief time in the Great Plains, the story of mobility in the region is not complete without the unique story of these men. Despite how little has been written about this facet of Great Plains history, my interest has been piqued to learn more about their story and the experiences of the Nebraskans who lived and worked alongside them.

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8 thoughts on “Prisoners of War in Nebraska

  1. I have written about this POW camp in my historical novel about the WW II homefront, “Not to be Forgiven.” One of the major characters in the book is a German prisoner. I would be interested in any photos of the camp when it was active. So far internet searches have not turned up any. Can anyone tell me of a source for photos of the Scottsbluff Camp?

    • Thank you for visiting our site, Nancy! I don’t recall seeing any photographs of the Scottsbluff Camp while researching this time period. However, you might double check in a couple of the sources that proved most useful to me:

      Spencer, Ralph. “Prisoners of War in Cheyenne County, 1943-1946,” Nebraska History 63
      (1982): 438-449.

      Williams, Suzanne Sarver. Nebraska and the CCC: Young Men at Their Best. Denton
      Community Historical Society, 2008. (This is mostly about the CCC but she does include a chapter at the end talking about how some of the CCC camps in Nebraska were later used as POW camps. She mentions the Scottsbluff Camp in the book.)

      I find it a little hard to believe that no one took any photographs of the camp, so perhaps one of the museums or archives in the area may have some records. I would try checking with Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering. Perhaps the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln might also have some POW records.

  2. Was the area around (South) Lake Miniature, known as “The Little Nile” due to gravity irrigation? Did it also house German POW camp?

  3. Hello
    I wander here, I wander everywhere. Now on the POW of WWII, I was a child on the farm, and I had not a novel experience, I had a real experience. We had Italian POW’s in 1943, and we had German POW’s in 1944. Both from North Africa from Erwin Rommel’s Panzer outfit.

    So what you like to know? And no. On the question above of the south part of Lake Minatare, I never heard it called The Little Nile, and as far as I knew, it never housed German POW’s. They were housed straight south from the Scottsbluff airport, right across Highway 26, about 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile down the road, on the east side of the road. I was riding with my dad in our farm truck, we turned off of the gravel road, heading for the POW complex.

    You can call me Melbeta, I use it as my user name, as I was born on my grand fathers farm, close to Melbeta, and we even farmed one year in 1935, straight north of Melbeta, between Melbeta and the river. The Univ of Nebr came out that year, as dad was plowing, and they followed his plow, picking up indian artifacts. Apparently that was the location of an ancient indian camp before the white man came to this region.
    MELBETA

  4. Good Evening to anybody that reads this post.
    I am at present staying in Scottsbluff from 26 to 29 June 2018 having traveled over from England UK to research the German POW that was here in the town during the WW2.I would be very interested to talk to anybody who can provide me with details. I also intend to travel up to Fort Robinson on one of these days to have a look at the location they had there for the POW camp.I will return to Scottsbluff for the night after the trip to Fort Robinson.
    Feel free to contact me on this e-mail address as I will pick up messages when I have an internet connection.
    Yours in hope.
    Bernie
    Tuesday 26 June 2018

    • I, too, have a great interest in German prisoner of war camps, especially the camp of some 3,000 POWs in Scottsbluff. I grew up in Scottsbluff during the war and remember seeing POWs being driven out to work of farms during harvest, and planting time.

      I was 6 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, so the war had a major impact on my life during my elementary school years. I have written of what kind of activities children were busy with, trying to help the war effort. In writing my novel of these times, Not to be Forgiven, (Hugo-House Publishers), I interviewed a number of people who were active during the war, such as women who worked at the POW camp, farmers who employed the prisoners as labors, and a woman whose sister was a nurse at the camp. See (nancympeterson.com)

      I’m unsure what material you are looking for. I suggest you contact the Scottsbluff, Nebraska library, where I found a file of information recorded by a Joe Fairfield, who in 1978 collected recollections of a number of people who were involved in life at the POW camp in some way. He updated/summarized his information in 1991. There were also a few newspaper articles written during the war years.

      I hope this information is of help. You may contact my directly at nmpeter@aol.com.

  5. Hi I am the grand daughter of german pow and I have cartoon sketches of POWS of how they passed their time in scotsbluff but would love to fund out more as my Opa passed away 3 years ago. He was captured in Cmfrance tsjdn to liverpool UK then was taken to new York via ship then was taken to scottsbluff

    • Hi Michelle.
      Have just read your message of 12 August 2018 while on holiday here in Germany after returning from the USA and after two weeks straight off over here from England,my home base. I would be very interested of the time-line of your grand father from capture to arrival in the USA and what happened after his time in the USA. I am a little confused by what you wrote about “capture in France” and what you wrote prior to the words Liverpool. Can you clarify ?
      Please reply direct to my private e-mail address of bernhard_temmen@talk21.com and I will get back to you soonest.
      Thank you.
      Bernie Temmen

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