Monday, December 29, 2014

World War II and the Plains of Nebraska

Our last ‘chapter’ about our visit to the Nebraska Prairie Museum involves a exhibit on a topic that we weren’t aware of or ever thought of.  When one considers America and World War II, we think of the sacrifices of our military personnel and their families, Pearl Harbor, U-Boat attacks, the bombing of London, the Pacific Theater, the Normandy Invasion, Hiroshima and perhaps the Battle of the Bulge. 

What we encountered at the museum involved WWII and part of its history in south central Nebraska… 

Yes…This is a guard tower!  More importantly, it has a sign on the fence that reads “German WWII POW Camp”!  We knew that many Japanese-Americans had been held in Internment Camps…but somehow it never dawned on either of us that German POW’s had been incarcerated here in the USA.  We certainly didn’t learn about it in our history classes.

Over three million prisoners of war were captured by Allied forces during World War II.  Of these, 370,000 Germans and 50,000 Italians were transferred from the battlefront to the United States at the request of our European allies, who were holding all the prisoners they could.  Prisoners were brought to the U.S. to be safely confined and to supplement a depleted civilian work force.  The POWs lived at 126 large camps, mostly in the center of the country, each housing several thousand men.

This is a mural at the entrance to the Nebraska Prairie Museum’s latest exhibit, entitled “Into the Eye of the Storm”.  This exhibit portrays “Camp Atlanta”, the WWII German POW Camp which was located near Atlanta Nebraska, just about 5 miles from the museum in Holdrege. (I failed to record this artist’s name…) 

The barracks for the POW camps were nearly identical for both the U.S. military personnel and the German prisoners.  The Corps of Engineers considered the ideal base camp to be an area of about 320 acres with relatively level ground providing good drainage.  This is about equal to a rectangle measuring a half mile by one mile.

Atlanta was divided into three main prisoner compounds with a capacity of approximately 1,000 men each.  Each compound consisted of several barracks buildings as well as a mess hall, workshop, canteen, infirmary, administrative building and recreation hall.  The barracks buildings were 20 x 100 feet and consisted of a concrete slab floor, cheaply built 2 x 4 framing and a covering of 4 x 8 tar-based sheeting for the exterior walls.  A layer of one-inch thick fiber material comprised the interior walls.

This is what the ‘real’ entrance to the Atlanta Prisoner of War Camp looked like when the camp was in operation.  The word ‘stark’ comes to mind!  It should be noted that the US Colonel in charge of the camp and his wife did much of the work on the sign by themselves as the Army was taking too long to get it accomplished...

When construction began in September 1943, locals were told this would be a "Conchie Camp" for the conscientious objectors from the United States. However, by November it became known that Atlanta would be a Prisoner of War camp expected to guard German prisoners.  The camp was staffed and guarded by approximately 275 US Army enlisted men and 60 officers.

The sign reads “This toy cart was made by a prisoner at the Atlanta Prisoner of War Camp during WWII.  It was given to a boy who lived near the camp.

The US Commander of the Atlanta POW Camp worked hard to keep the prisoners under his charge busy and out of trouble.  Among other things, they were involved in crafts, gardening, laundry, live theater, had their own German language newspaper, could watch movies twice a week…they even had their own orchestra!  Without activities and work, trouble could be just around the corner… While most German soldiers weren’t Nazis, the hard-core members of that group in the midst of the population were always trying to stir up the prisoners.

Some POWs resisted work or other activities.  An effective incentive to participation in these programs was one of "No Work, No Food." Prisoners who didn't cooperate with the Americans were put on bread and water rations until their thinking came into line with their captors.

Of great interest to Laurie and I were the many paintings depicting life at the Atlanta Prisoner of War Camp… This is entitled “Antreten Zur Zahlung” and it depicts the daily routine at reveille and retreat…the twice a day head count of the prisoners.

The artist is Thomas F. Naegele, a former US Army Interpreter who was assigned to the camp.  Naegele’s family had fled to England from Germany before the start of the War.  Later, he immigrated to the USA where he served as a US Army Interpreter.  The Army obviously needed soldiers who could speak German to help them run these camps.

“Sunrise at the Main Gate…” In this scene, guards are checking out POWs headed out to work on farm trucks with a guard detail along for the ride.  They were also checking in a few local civilians who worked at the camp.
Many of the German POWs were allowed to leave the camp under limited guard to help with agricultural work.  German prisoners of war from the internment camps proved to be of considerable aid to Nebraska farmers in helping to pick the state's 1944 record breaking corn crop.  These men were made available through application to county agricultural extension agents after priority had been given by the War Manpower Commission.  Toward the end of the war, some families were so comfortable with their POW laborers that one farmer reported that his wife would just go and pick them by herself.

This Naegele painting is entitled “Bread Wagon”.  Following complaints about the soft white factory bread that the prisoners were originally served, a variety of flours and yeast were provided to the commissary.  An oven was installed and bakers were selected from the POW ranks. 

Consequently, from that time forward, daily crisp and crusty loaves were provided for both the prisoners and the American troops guarding them… The bakery produced 1,044 pounds, or 522 loaves, of white bread daily.  For variety, rye bread was baked in limited quantities several times a week.

German prisoners in the USA were generally well treated, many of them living more comfortably and eating better than they would have back in Germany. (Of course they were still prisoners) Quite a number of them later immigrated to the US and became citizens.  Students of WWII might comment that our troops held in German POW camps didn’t fare as well.  That is true, but think about how we would have treated our German POWs if we’d been invaded!

I borrowed this photo and a couple of others from the Museum’s on-line exhibit.  This picture from the Atlanta POW Camps shows that it takes a lot of cooks to prepare meals for a camp full of hungry men.  The German POWs did all their own cooking and even prepared meals for the GIs.  Once the German cooks took over the commissary, both sides enjoyed better meals.

This painting is “Hoeing Beets”.  The springtime cultivation of new plants was relatively light work for the POW’s…especially when compared to husking corn in the summer.

This painting is titled “A Winter Patrol”.  The mounted American soldier is in search of 2 POW escapees who snipped their way out of camp on a cold Saturday night using a stolen pair of pliers.  By Wednesday of the same week, they were back in camp courtesy of a local sheriff.

Escapes from any of these camps were relatively rare.  The vastness of the USA boggled the minds of any prisoners who tried… They usually just turned themselves in after a couple of days.  There were exceptions.  The most notable escapee was Georg Gärtner.  He escaped from a POW camp in Deming, New Mexico on September 21, 1945.  He assumed a new identity and lived quietly for decades until "surrendering" to Bryant Gumbel on the Today Show in 1985.  Although wanted by the FBI for 40 years, he lived in Colorado under his adopted name, Dennis Whiles, and wrote a book about his experiences after escaping, entitled “Hitler's Last Soldier in America.”

This is titled “A Serenade”.  A POW named Panzer-Schmitt played a serenade for a GI couple while shopping in a McCook Nebraska pawnshop.  He was looking for inexpensive musical instruments to form a camp ensemble orchestra.  Note the US Army guard observing the scene. 

To quote one occupant of the Atlanta POW Camp, "When we first got to the camp, there were horse mounted patrols, guard dogs in fence runs, rifles and soldiers everywhere. Search lights shined around the camp at night. Toward the end of the war, Camp Atlanta was just like a quiet little town, with nothing going on even after dark." 

As I mentioned earlier, the German POWs even staged their own plays and entertainment.   When the prisoners' script called for a female part, one of the younger, fine-featured men would be called on to fill the role.  Music was an important diversion as well.  Some of the orchestra members even took their instruments back to Germany after the war…

The title of this painting ‘borrowed’ from the Nebraska Prairie Museum’s website is “What did those Krauts Say?”  The interpreter and artist, Thomas Naegele is in the foreground.  To quote: “My fellow Americans are curious and listen to my stories, which allow that not all Germans are Nazis, that the prisoners I spoke to are glad to be in America, and afraid of the Nazis among them. I try to explain what "Nazi" means.  Some of the GIs seem to question my loyalty, all but blaming me for their having to be soldiers away from family, school and job . . .” 

There was a lot of posturing and rabble-rousing efforts in the camps by fanatic long-time prisoners from the German Afrika Korps and the Waffen-SS.  As trouble makers, they were bounced from camp to camp before finally being isolated.  Such prisoners were responsible for at least 72 deaths, by coerced suicide in various camps between 1943 and 1945.  Most of those who were responsible were court martialed.

Another painting entitled “Defiance at the Gate” also featured Pfc. Naegele.  In February 1945, he’d been sent to one of the compounds with orders to confiscate all food supplies, other than bread, from a company mess hall in compliance with a bread-and-water diet as punishment for the prisoners' stubborn refusal to help with compound chores. 

“Returning From the Dump”… In April 1945, POWs were driven over to McCook Air Base to look for a load of wood and metal scrap for the prisoners to make into suitcases, toys, souvenirs and picture frames. Over a dozen of the frames in the Museum’s collection of Thomas Naegele’s works were handmade by a POW who also happened to be a master carpenter.  That’s the carpenter in the back of the truck ‘enjoying the first ice cream cone he’d had in years’.

This is a manikin in prisoner of war garb with his suitcase as he prepared for his return to Germany after the war.  In reality, most prisoners returning home were dressed in navy-dyed army surplus clothing.  They traveled by rail to the Norfolk Virginia Naval Yards. 

By December 1945 the government had become highly sensitive about prisoners of war being used in any job that could possibly be filled by returning American military veterans or those leaving the defense industries.  This meant that all 2,219 POWs remaining at Camp Atlanta, who were not actively working to maintain the camp, had little to do.  These men engaged in regular camp activities, including education classes, sports, hobbies and cultural programs. In January 1946, the Atlanta Prisoner of War Camp was officially deactivated.

A clearance sale of ninety remaining buildings began at 10:00 a.m. April 1, 1947.  These buildings were sold to the highest bidder with no priorities required. Thousands of feet of lumber were also included in this sale.  A few of the buildings that were purchased are still in use in the area.

To view many photos and paintings related to the Atlanta Nebraska POW Camp, just go to Laurie and I would heartily recommend the Nebraska Prairie Museum.  It is very interesting.  To learn more about this museum, you can go to

Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them…

Thanks for stopping by…and wading through this rather long posting!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave


  1. Thank you for all of your research into a very fascinating part of our history as a nation and so much I never knew. Wishing you and Laurie a very happy and healthy New Year.

  2. What Sam said. I knew the prisoners were here, but not where, but it sticks in my mind that some of the work in the smokys was done by Italian POW's

  3. Really interesting. I am sure you agree that considering Germany started the war our invasion of their country does not justify any mistreatment of US POWs. The Soviets POWs had it much worse - Germany starved and mass executed over 3 million Soviet prisoners. Just pure evil.

  4. My mother in law was 9 years old living in McCook...when she told the story of how they use to creep up as close as they could to get to the camps at night to see the prisoners. I kept asking her if she was sure they were Germans she said YES. Now we have never heard of this & could not understand why our government would bring them to the USA knowing how families were struggling to keep food on the table. It does not make sense bringing them here instead of dumping them all in the ocean. Knowing what my father & uncles went through.