Oklahoma POW Camps Played Significant Role During And After World War II

Sunday, October 22nd 2006, 1:59 pm
By: News On 6

ENID, Okla. (AP) _ World War II prisoner of war camps in Oklahoma have significance even today, partly because of the difference they made in the lives of prisoners who were here.

Bill Corbett, professor of history at Northeastern State University began studying POW camps while he was a member of the Northern Oklahoma College faculty in Tonkawa.

The POW camps came into use during the Egyptian campaign of World War II, when German Gen. Erwin Rommel seemed unstoppable in his bid to capture the Suez Canal.

The Italian Army attempted to take the canal but was soundly defeated by a smaller British Army, Corbett said. German leader Adolph Hitler sent his troops under Rommel to retake the canal, and Rommel's Afrika Korps came within about 50 miles of retaking the canal, Corbett said. The United States came into the war in 1941, and in 1942 defeated Rommel and took 200,000 prisoners, which the United States vowed would be kept under strict Geneva Conventions conditions and treated humanely.

Oklahoma had eight main POW camps and many other branch camps, Corbett said.

Oklahoma was chosen by the Army Corps of Engineers for three reasons, Corbett said. Oklahoma wasn't too cold, there was plenty of rural space and prisoners were kept away from important centers of shipping and industry.

Prisoners also were used to alleviate the shortage of agricultural labor created by the war.

The POW camp at Tonkawa, about 50 miles northeast of Enid, was a branch camp that held a number of prisoners.

The town of Tonkawa built the camp buildings north of town, and the camp was in operation until the end of the war, Corbett said. Prisoners who caused problems were moved to Alva, which was a maximum security center for prisoners who were thought to be threats, he said.

Every camp was built on the same design, and prisoners ran the camps themselves. Officers and enlisted men were separated, and the sergeants ran the camps, creating a discipline. The prisoners had a barracks, shower and hot meals and cared for themselves, Corbett said.

They ate the same food U.S. troops ate, which was an annoyance to people in the town who were subject to wartime shortages of food and sometimes did not have as much as the prisoners did, he said. Sometimes they called the camp the ``Fritz Ritz,'' Corbett said. Prisoners wore surplus U.S. uniforms marked ``PW'' on the front and back.

Corbett said each German unit contained a political agent who made sure troops maintained their loyalty to the values being taught them in the army. Sometimes that meant terrorizing their own troops. When one of these agents was identified, he was removed to Alva.

Later in the war, animosity developed between the troops captured in Africa and those captured in Europe. One prisoner was killed at Tonkawa, Corbett said, because other prisoners thought he had given strategic information to the allies. One night they took him into the mess hall, gave him a trial, condemned him and beat him to death.

During the war, more than 275,000 prisoners were brought to the United States and were kept in POW camps in Oklahoma and throughout the southern United States, he said.

While here, they were taught English and civics, exposing them to democracy. Another morale issue for the German troops was the train ride from the East Coast to their camps, Corbett said. Along the way, they found America was not on its last legs and ready to fall, like they had been told in Germany.

``Instead, they saw a thriving, vibrant country that was a world leader,'' Corbett said.

After the war, they returned to Germany and were among those who helped rebuild the country, utilizing their knowledge of democracy to build a country similar to the United States, Corbett said. Some even returned to the United States, he said.

The POW camps were significant for three reasons, Corbett said. They were concrete evidence the United States was winning the war. Many husbands and sons did not return from the war, he said, and the camps were evidence their deaths were not in vain.

The camps also were significant economically and culturally to the communities where they were located, he said, and through the experience Germans got a positive view of the United States.

``They saw a better life here, and the U.S. as a nation to emulate,'' he said.