German and Italian prisoners supported the N.C. economy in a crucial time
by Joel Haas | photographs courtesy N.C. Archives
In the 1940s, more than 5,000 men—each trained to kill Americans—came to the Triangle and central North Carolina.
May of 1943: Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps and the Italian Tenth Army surrendered to Allied forces. Suddenly, the Allies had over 200,000 men to feed, clothe and care for. Churchill asked Roosevelt to take on the POWs. At the time, the U.S. housed only a few dozen German U-boat crews; this would be well over a hundred times as many prisoners had been here in WWI. Roosevelt feared the American public’s reaction. But Southern politicians, desperately short of manpower for farms, urged Roosevelt to take the prisoners. More than 500 main camps and over a thousand satellite camps were set up throughout the United States, the majority in the Southwest and the South.
Our state hosted two large POW camps, one at Camp Butner, north of Durham, and a second at Fort Bragg, south of Raleigh, for both German and Italian prisoners of war. Scores of satellite camps were set up around the state wherever labor was needed.
According to the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, prisoners could be put to work on non-defense jobs. The workers were to be paid “the prevailing rate in the area for the type of their labor.” Moreover, prisoners should be fed and treated the same as the holding Army treated its own soldiers and officers. To ensure the safety of American POWs in Axis hands, the United States scrupulously observed the Geneva Convention rules.
The influx of manpower came just when the state needed it most. Hundreds of Germans and Italians were bused daily to Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh to work waiting tables and doing laundry
at UNC and Duke University, as well as working on road repair and harvesting crops throughout the state. POWs at Camp Butner even built an entire Japanese village for the U.S. army to use in preparation for the invasion of Japan.
The public’s reaction was positive. Upon seeing German columns marching in uniform and good order from their local train stations, the general reaction was something along the lines of, “Why, they look just like our boys!” Most American employers were grateful for the extra manpower, and some formed life-long friendships with the POWs. The City of Raleigh Museum has several examples of Bibles and prayer books in German or Italian that American church groups sent to the camps.
Prisoners could write letters back to Germany. They had to be brief and pass censors in both the U.S. and Germany to be delivered. More than a dozen such letters in the N.C. Archives reveal the majority of the German soldiers were draftees eager to let their families know they were well and to ask after fiancées, wives and children.
At the end of the war, the POWs were sent home—whether they liked it or not. There were about 8,000 incidents of escape, and attempts became more common towards the war’s end. Although many German POWs did not want to be sent back to Germany, only two managed to escape and build new lives in America. One, who escaped from Camp Butner, turned himself in in 1959.
By the summer of 1946, the camps in North Carolina had been emptied and dismantled. Ironically, most of the POWs were not sent directly home, but put to work rebuilding war damage in Britain, France and Belgium. (This was a reaction to WWI: The Allies disbanded the German Army and dumped millions of young men—along with thousands of weapons—into an economy with no jobs. This led to armed militias that threatened to start a German civil war in 1919.) The POWs were paid for their labor both in the U.S. and in Europe after the war, a nest egg to rebuild their lives in post-war Germany.
Most POWs recalled their time in the U.S. positively. As a young man in Austria, I encountered a housepainter in a tavern who walked up to me and a friend and asked, in perfect Deep South English, “Whur y’all boys come from?” Asked where he had learned English, he replied, “Boys, Ah chopped cotton in Alabama as a prisoner of war.” He went on to mention how well Black people in the fields had treated him, “They fed me real good—I even sang in their choir.” Whereupon, unbidden, he broke into singing: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home…
It was a reminder that even in war, there can be civility, and even enemies can forge connections that can last for decades—and across continents.