What’s the first thing to pop into your mind at the words “POW camp”?
World War II.
Yep. Believe it or not, there were sixteen (or fourteen, depending on the source) German POW camps in Kansas. Nearly every state in the U.S. had at least one. Altogether, nearly 500 camps housed approximately 400,000 German prisoners of war.
Camp Concordia, in Concordia, Kansas and Camp Phillips, near Salina, were among the largest of all the camps. After a rough start, the prisoners at Camp Concordia settled in to wait out the war in relative comfort. Prisoners at one point complained about being served too much meat. Soon many would not be able to fit into their uniforms. The abundance of food and clothing astounded the POWs. They had been provided with more sets of clothing than they had had in civilian life in Germany.
Some prisoners learned new skills while in America. Others made good use of the skills they already had. Masons built a stone wall that still stands at the entrance of the camp-turned-museum. Astounded by the climate and soil, they took charge of the grounds, planting flower and vegetable gardens and adding attractive landscapes to their environment.
The University of Kansas helped institute POW University, where prisoners could take classes and have those credits transferred to universities in Germany after the war.
Due to the labor shortage here in the states during the war, the prisoners were hired by local farmers as field hands. Many became close friends with the farmers they worked for. After the war, one German soldier married the farmer’s daughter. At the time of an 1982 interview, this soldier lived on the farm where he once worked as a POW.
Although escape attempts weren’t common, there were a few. At roll-call one morning, two prisoners at Camp Phillips were unaccounted for. A few days later, someone sent word to the camp about two “funny-looking fellows” whom they “couldn’t understand.” Turned out the prisoners were headed for Mexico. They hadn’t even made it out of Saline County.
The friendships the POWs developed with Kansans didn’t end with the war. Conditions back in Germany prompted Kansans to send care-packages of food, soap and other necessities to their former-POW friends. More than a few reunions have taken place.
I could write so much more about this topic. (I spent a number of hours reading different accounts of just these two camps.) Camp Concordia is now a museum. I see a road-trip in my future.
Many thanks to my friend Don Boller who happened to mention one day that he remembered POWs working on his family’s farm in Russell, Kansas. Otherwise, I never would have learned about this fascinating part of Kansas history.