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    Auction Finds

    Simple form leads to history of POW camps in U.S.

    What an odd but interesting document, I thought, as I spied the blank form titled “Prisoner of War” inside a plastic covering on the auction table. I’d never seen anything like it before and wondered if it was real.

    The form bore text and blank spaces for the date of capture, place of capture and who made the capture. It was a little unnerving because items like this always conjure up the history behind them – a history that sometimes was not very pleasant for the people who lived it.

    I turned it to the other side searching for more information, and saw that it was a U.S. government form with a printing year of 1942.

    POW capture form

    The front of the Prisoner of War form for sale at auction.

    The text instructed prisoners of the importance of this small, thin but weighty rectangular document:

    “Prisoners of war will be warned not to mutilate, destroy, or lose their tags.” This second of two sentences was repeated in several other languages, with German and Italian at the top.

    When and where was the form used? I wondered. At some POW camp in Europe during World War II? Googling, I could not find any mention of POW forms by our government, but I did learn a bit of history that I didn’t know and how the form could have figured into it: There were POW camps in the United States during World War II.

    I was very familiar with internment camps housing Japanese citizens after the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941. And I knew that the Confederate Camp Sumter/Andersonville military prison in Georgia held 45,000 Union soldiers (13,000 of whom died from disease, malnutrition, overcrowding) during the Civil War. About 100 of them were African Americans.

    POW capture form

    The back of the Prisoner of War form.

    More than 425,000 POWs from Germany, Japan and Italy were confined to camps in this country during World War II. From 1942 to 1945, a total of 511 of such camps were set up in every state, most in the South and Southwest (where the weather was warmer), but also the Midwest and the West. Texas appeared to have had more of them. Prisoners were even housed at Camp Wheeler outside Macon, GA, where my grandfather  was stationed during World War I. A majority of the detainees were German soldiers, not all of whom sympathized with the Nazis.

    The POWS were sent here as the war raged on and the allies were running out of prison space in Europe after the capture of thousands of soldiers.

    They lived in barracks and buildings mostly in rural areas, working on farms to harvest crops and as labor in local industries, building roads and other structures, along with other jobs. In the camps, they engaged in sports (many organized athletic teams), played chess and games, formed theater groups, took college coursework. They were treated better than African American citizens and soldiers – even though they were the enemy.

    All German prisoners were not cooperative, though; some diehard Nazis still believed in their fuhrer. The United States also attempted to turn them against the Nazi regime through re-education.

    Some tried to escape, but were shot, captured or surrendered. All POWs were sent home in 1946, but some were said to have returned to live in the United States after the war.

    POW camp

    German POWs in the United States: At left, a 1946 newspaper article in the Idaho Statesman noting that German POWs would work on sugar-beet farms in southern Idaho (photo from blog.genealogybank.com), and German prisoners marching to Camp Aliceville in Alabama in 1943 (photo from alicevillemuseum.org).

    Some of the German POWs were high-ranking scientists whom the U.S. government interrogated at a secret location outside Washington. Located in Fort Hunt Park, it was code-named P.O. Box 1142. The site consisted of barracks and buildings where about 4,000 prisoners were questioned about their jobs with the Third Reich and what they were working on. Some eventually ended up working for the United States after the war.

    The 1929 Geneva Convention, a document signed by such big powers as the United States, Great Britain, Italy and Germany, governed the treatment of all prisoners of war. The prisoners were to be provided food and clothing, medical care and other services. There were other stipulations, including payment if they were forced to work. They could not be put in dangerous conditions and they could not work in areas related to the war, among other things.

    Most countries generally adhered to it, but not always. One of the most horrific treatment of POWs was the infamous Bataan Death March. On April 9, 1942, about 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers who had surrendered to the Japanese were forced to walk for 65 miles in the Philippine jungles to prison of war camps. They walked in intense heat and were treated brutally by their captors. Thousands of them died along the way.

    As for the POW form, I can only assume that someone kept it as a relic from the war. So much history embedded in such a slim piece of paper.

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