To hear the cable pundits talk, one would think the United States had never entertained the notion of housing – much less housed – prisoners of war on our own domestic soil. But we had just short of 400,000 POWs during the course of World War II, thirty one camps in Oklahoma alone.
True, these were not “enemy combatants,” but many were considered evil and dangerous men—and just as much a threat to national security as their modern-day counterparts.
As a boy I grew up knowing that hundreds of Nazis ate, worked and slept in a POW camp just outside Alva, Oklahoma, and that German POW work crews labored practically in my own backyard, in the Santa Fe ice plant in Waynoka, Oklahoma.
As a man, I returned to this slice of American military history for the backdrop of my new book, The Yard Dog
, a mystery set in the Alva POW camp.
What my readers and most American may never realize—in this day of the Guantanamo Bay Detention in Cuba and the discussion of whether or not to relocate its captives to American prisons—is that Oklahoma’s camps were just a tip of a WWII network of camps housing captured soldiers that sprawled across the American heartland. POW camps could be found in nearly every state in the union, with heavy concentrations in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. Unlike Gitmo, which operates beyond the public eye, the WWII camps were right in our midst.
From the beginning, in spite of the mistreatment of our own soldiers in the war, the U.S. went out of its way to observe the dictates of the Geneva Convention at those camps. WWII POWs had access to both the Red Cross and the Swiss legation (prisoners could air complaints without fear of retaliation), educational opportunities and good food—sometimes better food than the locals, who were subject to the normal shortages of a war economy. POW work parties were also sent into communities to provide farm labor or to work in factories.
Torture was not permitted in the American POW camps. In fact, the ranking prisoners provided much of the camp’s discipline, and while prisoners could, and did, cause trouble, allowing the German officers to handle most infractions—as they would on the field of battle—seemed to work.
Escape attempts by POWs were few and largely unsuccessful. The camps were purposely put in remote locations, and while escape attempts were dangerous by definition, they were not treated as criminal acts. Even in the case of the Alva camp, which housed the more dangerous, hardened Nazis, the prisoners were considered to be, and treated as, captured soldiers not criminals.
Could this be because the German POWs were more racially similar to the locals, many of whom, like the POWs, were of German heritage, often carrying the same surnames and, on occasion, were actually related? Maybe.
But it might surprise Americans to know that WWII faced many of the same logistical problems as the War on Terror when it came to interrogating prisoners. Finding reliable interpreters has been a constant challenge in Iraq, and it was no less true in WWII POW camps. German interpreters were so desperately needed on the front, POW camp commanders often relied on prisoners as interpreters, making the information obtained unreliable at best.
Eventually, the war ended, as wars are wont to do, and the U.S. faced the problem of what to do with thousands of German POWs. The U.S. realized to send the German soldier home carried with it the risk that he might rise up again—despite all the efforts made during his imprisonment to reeducate him through films, books and articles that documented the atrocities committed against the Jews in the name of German nationalism.
In the end, he was sent back—sometimes directly home, sometimes to such places as France and Russia—to help rebuild, but back he did go.
Today I can walk through the Cherokee Strip Museum in Alva and see drawings, wood carvings and even escape maps the German soldiers left behind at the camp at the war’s end. I can go to the camp in El Reno, Oklahoma, and visit the graves of those who died and were buried in a foreign land.
All this has only reinforced my belief that sunshine is always better than darkness. The POW camps of World War II were there for all of us to see. The camps were not perfect, but they were honest and open and civilized—and, just as important, we knew it.
In the end, I can look at that history without shame, because America did the right thing for America by doing right by the prisoners it captured. It makes me proud.
Those German POWs went home carrying a message that Americans—and, thus, America—are what they claim to be.
Will the same be able to be said about the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, when the day comes that it is time for them to go home?
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