Ft Campbell's POWs as Local Labor
The story of prisoners of war being held at Fort Campbell isn’t discussed very often. Like anything else with history, it can be a complicated discussion.
During World War 2, the United States operated 142 internment camps for German prisoners of war. One of which was at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The military constructed 3 separate POW camps on the base that included housing up to 1,000 prisoners per facility.
How did they end up here?
In 1942, a large naval fleet brought the first groups of American combat troops into the war via Operation Torch, led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. This landing in Africa allowed Eisenhower and his troops to quickly make an impact and, along with other allied forces, wear down Germany’s top General Erwin Rommel. The North Africa Victory in 1942 netted an unplanned capture of a 250k+ German soldiers, mostly from the famed Africa-Corps. These prisoners were distributed to planned locations throughout the US. Locally, upon arrival, they were segregated between three stockades by rank and Nazi vs. Anti-Nazi sympathies. The Army’s early effort in segregating anti-Nazi and Nazi prisoners was largely believed to be inconsistent and unsuccessful. Unlike other camps in Oklahoma and Louisiana that experienced riots, Fort Campbell avoided rioting and was a functionally calm environment.
During the German prisoner's time at Fort Campbell’s internment camp, there were different roles established for different prisoners. They used German officers and NCOs in post support details, while many of the enlisted German soldiers were available for hire locally. This was essential to keep the prisoners busy. It became a normally scheduled practice to contract the German labor to local farms to help balance shortfalls.
The sight of German POWs in town was fairly common. Shirts easily identified prisoners with a capital “P” — they would often wave at locals. That withstanding, heavily armed American soldiers escorted all German POWs to ensure there would be no agendas outside of the predetermined activities of the day.
One farmer described the labor in this way - “We had German prisoners who worked on our farm. We had a cattle truck and would bring in maybe 80 prisoners in the truck, and the farmer had to agree to sign for a minimum of 20 prisoners. They would send out the prisoners with a guard to your farm. We had them work on the farm for two years. They would do whatever you needed to be done. They cut corn on our farm; about 20 or 30 acres of corn. They would cut it, put it on the wagon and take it to our silo and load it in a cutter that loaded it in the silo.”
“They would send them out with peanut butter sandwiches to eat. The bread was really thick. Mom would make up some green beans and potatoes to eat as well, and the prisoners loved that. Most of the soldiers were big, tall, blonde kids. I made a friend with one of them. His name was Hans and after the war, I kept correspondence with him. He lived in Munich.”
By the mid-40s, the US government developed a NAZI re-education program with the support of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. He stressed all re-education should remain under military control and emphasized the goal. There would be no civilian engagement for this program. "Our objective should not be the improbable one of Americanizing the prisoners, but the feasible one of imbuing them with respect for the quality and potency of American institutions.”
With European victory on the horizon in early 1945, the Army understood that reliable, trained Germans would be required to extend a military government to administer the US zone of occupation effectively. At the conclusion of the war, all German POWs, including Fort Campbell's prisoners, were returned to Germany by April 1946. Many of those soldiers were sent back to Germany with hopes of their newly learned American system being forefront in their minds and useful to re-establish a German government.
During the war, there were 5 prisoners that died during their time at Fort Campbell. They buried each of the German soldiers in the only official Army cemetery on post. This small POW cemetery in the southeast corner of the base is a reminder of this era.
The Fort Campbell German POW Cemetery is one of only 41 Army cemeteries in 19 states overseen by Army National Military Cemeteries.