Idaho History: Idaho’s POW camps operated from 1943-1945

| October 6, 2010 | 1 Comment
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German and Italian prisoners of war began arriving in the United States in 1942 after beleaguered Britain could no longer take care of them in the manner required by the Geneva Convention. The Convention, adopted by most Western nations by 1880, set standards for the treatment of POWs, including providing medical care for the sick or wounded.

With the defeat of Marshal Erwin Rommel’s tank forces in the deserts of northern Africa, thousands of German and Italian POWs were shipped to Britain and then sent on to the United States. By 1945, when the war ended, more than 400,000 prisoners had been sent to America.

Camps were built to house them in Idaho and other Western states. Camp Rupert, near Paul, Idaho, was the base camp for the southern part of the state, with about 15,000 POWs divided among branch camps at Aberdeen, Blackfoot, Emmett, Filer, Franklin, Gooding, Idaho Falls, Marsing, Nampa, Payette, Pocatello, Preston, Rigby, Shelley, Sugar City, Thomas, Upper Deer Flat, near Nampa and Wilder.

Others were located at Fort Hall, Gooding and Kooskia.

There was a shortage of farm labor because of the war, and POWs in Rupert’s satellite camps planted and harvested crops. Most prisoners wanted to work at agricultural jobs and earn 80 cents or a dollar a day, rather than languish in camp. Farmers contracted for crews that were trucked to the fields in the morning and back to camp in the evening.

Without the labor of POWs during the war, production of several important Idaho crops, sugar beets in particular, would have been significantly reduced.

Besides farm workers drafted into the armed forces, hundreds of other Idaho men and women had moved to the West Coast for well-paying jobs in shipyards and aircraft factories.

Toms Jaehn, a former archivist at the Idaho State Historical Society, wrote in the Montana Historical Society’s magazine that Camp Rupert was not a typical POW facility, but a tough, maximum security camp for hundreds of members of Nazi elite organizations such as Heinrich Himmler’s SS. His Panzer Division Das Reich was responsible, among other crimes, for the massacre of 642 civilian men, women and children in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Members of Hitler’s personal SS bodyguard also were imprisoned at Rupert. The guards treated them as dangerous, and other prisoners feared them because of their fanatical political views, against which nobody dared speak.

For a short time Rupert also was the holding place of 154 Russians who had been captured by Germans and persuaded to join the German army to fight against their homeland because of their hatred for Joseph Stalin. Under terms of the Geneva Convention all prisoners had to be repatriated after the war – a sure sentence of death for these men, then branded as traitors to Russia. At Fort Dix, N.J., they rioted in protest against having to leave America, but in accordance with the Convention, they were sent home anyway.

In February 1945, a POW camp attached to Farragut Naval Training Station on North Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille received 750 German and Austrian POWs. They were given light work as gardeners and groundskeepers. Some volunteered to help fight forest fires in the area. A German language newspaper named “Die Lupe” (the “Magnifying Glass”) was published by them.

For men who had endured the hardships and perils of war, Camp Farragut was a peaceful place to spend the months before they were sent home. They could play soccer, table tennis or pool and were supplied with materials and tools for crafts. They had their own band, a choir of 30 voices and a library.

Naturally, some Americans thought the POWs were being pampered, but it was official policy, in keeping with the Geneva Convention, to treat enemy prisoners as we wanted the Germans to treat our captured soldiers. By and large it worked out that way. The International Red Cross saw to it that prisoners on both sides got mail and packages from home.

At Christmas in 1945, the commanding officer of Camp Farragut used the camp paper to send his prisoners this message in both German and English: “On your last Christmas as a Prisoner of War in America we would give you these presents to carry back to the homeland: A little view of the democratic life; A new courage to face the problems of tomorrow; A memory of a peaceful Christmas where you had Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. E-mail histnart@mindspring.com.

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  1. Quinn says:

    “On your last Christmas as a Prisoner of War in America we would give you these presents to carry back to the homeland: A little view of the democratic life; A new courage to face the problems of tomorrow; A memory of a peaceful Christmas where you had Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.”

    Hnmmm what a concept!

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