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.