One relatively unknown story of the home front in World War II is that of the scores of German prisoners of war who worked on Clay County farms during the summers of 1944 and 1945.
Over 420,000 German, Italian and Japanese POWs were held by the United States during WW II. America probably treated POWs better than any other belligerent. It wasn’t out of any particular kindness, but because the U.S. strictly followed the 1929 Geneva Convention. However, the interpretation of the accords were subject to revision as the U.S. learned to deal with the prisoners by trial and error.
The huge number of men in uniform created a severe labor shortage in the U.S., particularly in low priority industries such as agriculture. To help out, the federal government offered to supply POWs on a contract basis to civilian employers. As long as they were not required to work on any project directly related to the war effort or in dangerous jobs, this was completely in line with the Geneva accords.
In the Spring of 1944, Moorhead area truck farmers Henry Peterson and Paul Horn contracted for 150 prisoners to work on their vegetable farms.
Army inspectors sent to locate suitable housing for the POWs initially selected a barn near the Red River on 12th Avenue South in Moorhead. Local residents objected to having POWs housed in their neighborhood so a second site, an onion warehouse on 21st Street near 4th Avenue North, was selected.
On Sunday, May 28, the first 40 Germans arrived in Moorhead from a large POW Camp at Algona, Iowa. They were accompanied by several guards and 2nd Lt. Richard M. Blair, commander of Algona Branch Camp Number One as the Moorhead facility was officially known. They spent the first night in tents on the Horn farm south of town, but soon began transforming the warehouse (which still stands) into a barracks. The remaining 110 or so arrived by train on the 31st and marched from the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot to the camp.
The prisoners did all the work at the compound themselves including installing a water and sewer system. The government provided the materials. An eight foot wire fence surrounded the 60 x 170 foot warehouse. A guard tower was planned but apparently never built.
Six days a week, trucks from the Peterson and Horn farms picked up the POWs and their guards and carried them to the fields. There the prisoners planted, hoed and eventually picked the vegetables or did general farm maintenance; always watched by guards. They were paid, too. The contractors paid the government 40 cents an hour per prisoner for their labor, the going rate for farm labor as defined by the Clay County Wage Board. In turn, the government paid the prisoners 10 cents per hour in coupons redeemable only at the camp canteen. The remaining 30 cents went toward housing and feeding the POWs and profit for the U.S. Government. (Between June and September 1944 alone, local POW labor netted the U.S. well over $13,000!)
Most of the prisoners had been captured in Italy and Sicily, and a few in North Africa.
German speaking T. Sgt. Eric 0. Brasch, second in command and contact man between Lt. Blair and the prisoners, told the Fargo Forum “They still think Germany will win the war. They are not permitted to see newspapers or listen to the radio, and we don’t tell them anything, so what they know is what they knew when they left the battlefields or whatever rumors they may have heard.”
Horn and Peterson, in a 1973 interview with the Northwest Minnesota Historical Center at Minnesota State University Moorhead, remembered most of the POWs as “…friendly…and quite nice people” though a little reluctant to work. Horn estimated that “Their output of work was, I suppose, about 65% compared to migrant labor from South Texas…They just couldn’t keep up.”
A few prisoners, particularly those captured in North Africa before Germany’s decline, caused some minor problems. Florence Drury of Moorhead, bookkeeper on the Peterson Farm in 1944, remembers three “real Nazi types. They would strut around with their chests out, like [they were] goose stepping almost.” A few prisoners broke a pump with a sledge hammer and there was a sit down strike in September that ended with 14 prisoners spending a night in the Clay County Jail, but that was unusual. There were no escapes. Mrs. Drury remembers most of them as “just ordinary kids.” Aside from their German uniform caps and the “P W” stamped on their blue shirts and pants, they looked no different from young Americans.
That there were few problems may be due to the humane treatment they received from Horn, Peterson and Lieutenant Blair.
After the war many prisoners wrote letters (now in the NWMHC Archives) thanking the Horns and Petersons for their kind treatment. Several requested aid packages or assistance in getting to America. One remembered Peterson sending flowers and fruit to sick prisoners at Moorhead’s St. Ansgar Hospital, two trips to a movie theater and “Bier and cigarettes” on Saturdays. The later were forbidden by Army regulations as was a memorable trip mentioned by another prisoner to Moorhead’s Magic Aquarium Bar.
Lt. Blair was well liked by the contractors and Mrs. Drury. Horn said “The fellow was all right. He liked a good time rather than pay attention to duty.” Blair took the POWs swimming on Sundays to the Buffalo River State Park or the Benedict Gravel Pit southeast of Moorhead.
One of his first acts was to request the city council to close 21st Street to traffic after regular business hours and on Sundays. Hundreds of curious motorists were cruising past the camp. Subjecting prisoners “to the public gaze” was contrary to the Geneva accords. The Fargo Forum reported that “groups of young girls also created something of a problem.” The City complied.
A report of an inspection in August 1944 indicated that, though dimly lighted, the warehouse was “cool on hot days. A few things such as a small fish pool… have been made by the men themselves…. Some general reading books [will] be sent from Algona.” Also sent were arts and crafts materials including paint and brushes, embroidery materials and a wood caning kit. One prisoner caned two decorative wooden plaques for Mrs. Drury which are now in the CCHS collections. Lutheran and Catholic Church services were held on alternating Sundays.
But Blair was not universally admired. Another inspection in September described the compound as “dirty, poorly policed.” The report continued “Lt. Blair’s management has not been satisfactory to [Algona Camp Commander] Colonel Lobdell and he is being returned to
Algona for compound duty. He has a penchant for addressing civil organizations on prisoner of war matters and is not properly versed in War Department policies to be entrusted to such public appearances.” Indeed, in August Blair had spoken to the Fargo Rotary Club on “Postwar Germany.” His treatment of the POWs belied his feelings about them. The club newsletter later reported that in a witty but opinionated speech, Blair had characterized his charges as “cocky and arrogant. They are deeply resentful of being penned up with barbed wire for they feel they are the superior race. And so with such deep seated attitudes of mind the whole German population is pretty much of a loss as far as keeping the peace is concerned. In the Lieutenant’s opinion there just isn’t much salvage value. Germany will have to be dealt with very firmly for many years to come.”
He was replaced by Lt. B. C. Davis whose first act was to reopen 21st Street to traffic. Davis claimed the restriction had never proved successful and that “henceforth…. federal law will be invoked for those who violated non-fraternizing regulations.”
He also issued new, clear cut rules to the contractors. They included limiting conversations with the prisoners to work orders, banning POWs from riding in the cabs of trucks or entering businesses and positively barring any exchanging of gifts.
The POWs were returned to Algona after the harvest in November.
In July of 1945, a much smaller group of prisoners returned to Moorhead. The new stricter regulations remained in force. $1,100 worth of improvements were made to the warehouse including separating the kitchen and dining area from the sleeping quarters. The wire fence was removed. Roy Schultz of Adrian, MI, was a Sargent and second in command at Moorhead in 1945. He remembers “The POWs weren’t going anywhere. Those guys didn’t know where the hell they were.” Some prisoners were also allowed to work without guards.
On the 19th of July the Army held a public hearing at the Clay County Courthouse to acquaint the public with the new rules. Some people were more concerned with the guards than the POWs. In the 1973 interview, Peterson claimed “[in 1944] we had more trouble with the guards than with the prisoners…. They were hillbillies….and they were very poorly educated.” Horn added “…sometimes they went out with some of the neighbor’s girls, and so on and their parents didn’t like it very well.” The Moorhead Daily News reported that in 1945 “Guards at the camp will be returning veterans who have relatives or homes in the Minnesota or North Dakota vicinity.”
Other citizens were upset when they heard that the prisoners were getting meat several times a week while it was rationed to them. The Geneva Convention required that prisoners receive “the same quality and quantity of meals” as American servicemen. In 1945, faced with stricter food restrictions at home, the stipulations were reinterpreted to mean the same number of calories – 3,400 per day. Most meat, fat and sugar was removed from the POW’s diet and replaced with starches. (Ironically, with what we know today about nutrition, this was probably a much healthier diet than what our servicemen received!) POWs only received non-restricted meat, including beef shanks, flanks and livers and salt pork, bellies and feet.
The prisoners did their own cooking. Mr. Schultz remembers “we ate the same food as the prisoners. They were very good cooks, too.”
The POWs also elected their own camp leader who spoke to the authorities for all of the prisoners through an interpreter.
It was a quiet summer at the camp. Mr. Schultz laughs that “It was pretty boring duty, really. We just got them ready to go out to the fields in trucks with a few guards then got ready for them when they returned at night. That’s about it.”
The prisoners returned to Algona in the fall. Most were shipped back to Germany the following year.
After Autumn, 1944, it was the policy of the U.S. Army to introduce the POWs to American style democracy and our way of life – an effort designed to create a democratic postwar Germany. Under the “Intellectual Diversion Program” the prisoners studied English, watched movies and read books and magazines selected to “reeducate” them in American ways.
But it is unlikely that the program was any more effective in instilling an appreciation for American values than the simple humane treatment that they received from Horn, Peterson and the others here in Clay County. In a letter to Peterson after the war, one former prisoner wrote in broken English, “Now I’m return from the United Staates [sic] to my homeland. I have been over there 2½ years, a long time for me. But I did learn the American people and the democratic politik of America…. It was a good school for me. I want to be a democratic citizen here and the most population will the same…. Today I will thank you again through my letter. We have been [not] only good workmen, we have been good fellows, too. Every man likes you and I will never forget your truck farm.”