One of the ironies of the Minnesota home front during World War II is that while so many local men were in Europe fighting Nazi Germany, German prisoners of war held here were put to work in the state’s farm fields and canning plants.
The efforts of these prisoners, some of whom were farmers themselves back home in Germany, were needed to ease Minnesota’s severe labor shortage in 1944-45.
For those final two years of World War II, German prisoners of war housed at camps in Whitewater State Park and near Owatonna and Faribault -- in fact at camps throughout Minnesota -- were an integral and generally welcome part of rural Minnesota’s workforce.
They were sometimes less than welcome in communities where labor unions sought to protect jobs for their members. Or, in some places, the men were viewed with suspicion based solely on reputation and perception.
In Rochester, for example, officials at Saint Marys Hospital reportedly inquired about having German POWs work in the hospital laundry. The request was not greeted enthusiastically by Local 515 of the State, County and Municipal Workers, according to a study by Edward J. Pluth, published in 1975 in Minnesota History magazine. The union said use of the prisoners “would not add to the prestige of the community.”
Whether that union resistance was a factor or not, camp administrators never approved the proposal. Transporting the prisoners to work at the hospital was supposedly going to be a problem. But, as Pluth pointed out, in July 1945 prisoners were transported without incident each day from the Whitewater camp to work at the Reid, Murdock Canning Co. plant in Rochester.
In any event, through 1945, even after the war in Europe ended with Germany’s surrender on May 8, Army officers running the prison camps were unable to keep up with the requests for manpower in Minnesota’s lumbering and ag-related industries.
With the difficulty of moving large numbers of men back across the Atlantic Ocean, the POWs were not immediately returned to their home country when the war ended. And, as a Post-Bulletin article in July 1945 noted, those soldiers who came from areas of Germany that were now under the control of the Soviet Union were in no hurry to go back.
The men from Germany and its one-time ally Italy held in the midwestern camps had been captured on the battlefields of Europe and North Africa. The United States started accepting prisoners of war held by Great Britain in 1942, and eventually 400,000 men were housed in prison camps throughout the country.
The prisoners in southern Minnesota, who sometimes worked up to 12 hours a day, were paid in coupons that could be used to purchase items at the camp store. The camp at Whitewater, a former Civilian Conservation Corps facility, was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. But there were no attempts at escape, according to the Post-Bulletin.
As the war came to a close, Capt. Jack. I. Elson, commander of the Whitewater camp, told the Post-Bulletin, “There was no demonstration here on V-E Day, only a tenseness among the prisoners.”
For most of them, the war had ended long ago.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.