The German POWs in Florida

When I visited the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee several years ago, one of the exhibits that I found  most intriguing was a plain dark work shirt with the letters “PW”  on the back. It stood for “Prisoner of War”, and it told an interesting story that I had not heard before.


POW uniform shirt on display at the Museum of Florida History

During the first few years of World War Two, things did not go well for the Allies. The Nazis overran most of Europe, threatened to invade England, then pushed deep into Russia. Italian and German forces were entrenched in Northern Africa. Even when the US, with its massive manpower and armaments industry, entered the war, it took a long time before the Allies were in any position to begin fighting back.

But gradually the tide began to turn. American and British forces landed in North Africa and took on Rommel’s Panzers. This was followed by invasions of Sicily and Italy. And finally in June 1944 the Allies landed at Normandy and began fighting their way across Europe.

This in turn led to large numbers of German and Italian troops being captured as prisoners of war, and these increased as the war went on and began to go badly for the Axis. Some 378,000 German and Italian POWs were shipped to the United States, where they were confined in dozens of camps spread throughout 45 states.

About 10,000 of these, mostly German, ended up in Florida. Here there were two primary camps: Camp Blanding was located at the town of Starke, near Orlando, and Camp Johnston was established at Carrabelle, in the Panhandle.  Camp Blanding was the larger of the two, with some 7500 prisoners being held both in the main camp and in twenty smaller “branch camps” that were physically separate but were still run administratively by the authorities at Blanding. Camp Johnston had around 2500 POWs and three branch camps. Formed in 1943, Camp Blanding at first contained captured U-boat crews and Afrika Korps members who had surrendered in North Africa: when Camp Johnston was opened in early 1944, both camps were filled with captured and surrendered troops from Sicily and Italy, and then from France and Germany.

Unlike France or England, which had been devastated by bombing and invasion during the war, the United States mainland had never been directly attacked during the war, and so with its intact economy being one of the wealthiest in the world, the US was able to provide well for all of the prisoners it was holding. German and Italian prisoners being held in America were given lavish food and clothing (as good as that provided for the US servicemen who were guarding them), and were allowed to organize their own sports teams, school classes, and other activities inside the camps.

In many camps, the hardcore Nazis, especially the officers, tried to organize resistance through a strict code that punished fellow prisoners for “fraternizing” with the Americans. But for many of the German POWs, especially those non-ideological conscripts who had previously seen action in Russia—a brutally bitter campaign in which no quarter was given and where prisoners on both sides were routinely slaughtered—the good treatment they received at the hands of the Americans was a welcome godsend. The Americans, in turn, took advantage of those good feelings by sponsoring programs to “re-educate” the captured Germans in democratic government, the values of freedom and democracy, and the evils of nationalism, racism and militarism. This was often vehemently opposed by the Nazi officers and was controversial even among American officials, since the Geneva Conventions prohibited the act of attempting to ideologically indoctrinate enemy prisoners. But the American methods used in the POW camps later became the core of the “de-Nazification program” carried out in occupied Germany by the victorious Allies.

The Americans also used the POWs to help solve another difficulty that they faced. With so many able-bodied young men away fighting the war, the US faced a severe labor shortage. While the Geneva Conventions prohibited forced labor or utilizing POWs as workers in war-related industries, it allowed for prisoners to voluntarily work in non-military roles. So the Army began parceling out POWs to area farmers to pick citrus fruits, cut sugar cane, or chop pine trees for making wood pulp, pitch, turpentine and lumber. It not only gave the prisoners something to do to help fill their enforced idleness, but it brought them into prolonged direct contact with ordinary rural American life, which, the authorities hoped, would inculcate them with ideas of freedom and democracy and with images of American wealth and prosperity.

As a result, when these POWs were released after the war and returned to Germany, they brought with them a fondness for “America”, and a sense that the United States was a benevolent new partner. Some of the former POWs even returned to Florida after the war to live.



6 thoughts on “The German POWs in Florida”

  1. I think post-war events showed beyond doubt that it is better to turn your enemies into friends than to punish them.

    A similar story happened here in South Africa: thousands of Italian POWs were sent here. From what I heard, the mother of the officer in charge of the POW camps was in a Boer War concentration camp. Because of this, the officer was very firm on this point: “not on MY watch will anything like that ever happen again.”

    And thus, with the Italian POWs here it was the same as with the German ones in the U.S.: They were given comfortable lodgings, lots of opportunities for study and recreation, proper medical care, and indeed were often allowed out of the camps (because where exactly would they go if they “escaped”?)

    The result is that after the war, thousands of them went back to Italy for no other reason than to go fetch their families before returning to South Africa to settle down here; at the time, the country was a veritable paradise compared with war-devastated Italy, and the worst of the political turmoil still far in the future.

    I recall having seen a documentary on YouTube about the German POWs in America. In a general sort of way, particularly as the war dragged on and on, it was way safer, healthier and better for an Axis soldier, whether German, Italian or Japanese, to become a POW in the west than to remain a soldier in his own nation’s armed forces. Of course, not so much if the Soviets got hold of you…

    1. The Russian front was pure brutality on both sides. Similarly in the Pacific, where the Japanese killed many POWs and the unofficial American policy was “take no prisoners”.

      1. With the Japanese it could be risky to try to take them prisoner: many pretended to surrender, only to start shooting or throwing grenades at the last moment. The Americans were kind of flabbergasted by the Japanese’s sheer fanaticism.

  2. The treatment of prisoners was to a great extent driven by ideology, especially racial ideology. The Nazi invasion of the USSR was a program of conquest and extermination. Russian POWs, who were not killed outright, were treated like farm animals, kept in large holding areas, barely fed or clothed, and the their death rate was astronomical. Sometimes they were incarcerated in plain sight of other Allied POWs who were treated far better, in accord with the Geneva Convention.

    German POWs in Russia were either shot immediately are sent off to the GULAG, from which about 10% returned…in the 1950s! You can hardly blame the Russians for this after the Nazi behavior in their push into Russia. This was the fate of Paulus’s army after his defeat at Stalingrad, although, of course, he was treated well, and became a prime propaganda tool. (Hitler had made clear to him that he was to commit suicide rather than surrender, but he wasn’t buying it.)

    The Japanese soldiers were indoctrinated to fight fanatically “for the Emperor,” but of course, it didn’t help matters that they knew that they would be shot if taken prisoner by the Americans. The US military in Europe waged intensive propaganda efforts to demoralize the Germans to induce them to desert and surrender: One point they made is that they would be treated very well as POWs, and they were, which helped the effort. This was not done in the Pacific, to a great extent because of racist ideas that Japanese soldiers would not be susceptible to such rational appeals. The “inscrutable Asiatics…” So, the cycle of death was heightened rather than reduced. This is discussed at length in War Without Mercy, by John Dower.

    1. It did not really help that the Japanese soldiers would sometimes pretend to surrender, only to start throwing grenades once their enemy was within reach.

      Even so, many (most?) were conscripts, and guarantees that they would be well treated might have worked.

      I feel rather badly for the many German conscripts on the eastern front who ended up paying the price for the sins of their fathers. They were between a rock and a hard place: in Nazi Germany no allowances were made for conscientious objectors. You became a soldier or you became dead. And if you became a soldier, increasingly, as the war dragged on, you were likely to be killed anyway.

      That’s what happens when nations collectively loose their minds. The few remaining sane ones are not safe, and end up paying the price too.

      1. Hey, at least those Germans who were shipped to Siberia were the enemy! What if you were a Soviet soldier taken prisoner by the Germans, and you somehow escaped or were liberated by the Soviet advance – you were assumed to be a spy or a collaborator and immediately shipped to the GULAG!

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