Nebraska and other rural states faced a severe farm labor shortage during World War II. As hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war began arriving in the US, people began to wonder if POWs could help solve the farm labor crisis.
By Breanna Fanta, Editorial Assistant
Nebraska and other rural states faced a severe farm labor shortage during World War II. The draft shipped men off to war, and wartime industries attracted much of the remaining labor pool. Grand Island, in particular, faced a dire situation: local farms lacked workers, the army turned the airport into a training base, and the newly built Cornhusker Ordnance Plant required thousands of laborers.
As hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war began arriving in the US, people began to wonder if POWs could help solve the farm labor crisis.
Edith Robbins explains how a POW camp ended up in the middle of Grand Island, and translates letters from former German POW Dietmar Neubert. Robbins’ article, “Prisoners of War in Grand Island” appears in Nebraska History Magazine’s Spring 2021 Issue.
With agriculture being a primary focus in Nebraska, it was crucial to provide farmers with laborers. In April 1944, the US Department of Agriculture Extension agreed to survey how many prisoners would be needed. Local farm groups were formed to determine this number. Later, the Association for Handling of Negotiations with Army signed contracts with the War Department to employ the prisoners.
That year, the Hall County Non-Stock Co-op Labor Association was created and placed in charge of finding farm laborers: German, Japanese-American, or workers from Mexico or Jamaica. Men from Jamaica and Mexico were brought to Hall County, but residents refused workers of Japanese descent. Following this, the association contacted Camp Atlanta, a German POW camp near Holdrege, Nebraska, regarding the conditions and requirements necessary to receive German laborers.
In July 1944, 28 German POWs arrived in Grand Island to renovate the old Dodge school which would house the prisoners. The building wasn’t functional, but after renovation they were able to use the east side and part of the yard for exercise. The War Department also provided food and bedding.
(Old Dodge school seen from the east side. German prisoners were housed here. The building was torn down in 1948. Stuhr Museum, Grand Island)
By the summer of 1944, the first 100 German prisoners arrived from Camp Atlanta, Nebraska’s largest POW camp. Prisoners were required to dress in a trouser and shirt set that read in a large white print “PW.”
Since the new camp was in downtown Grand Island, which was an anomaly, there were concerns about housing such “dangerous” prisoners. However, most of the locals (many of whom were of German descent) were interested in their new neighbors—but socializing with the prisoners was a felony.
The Ordnance Plant also had its own POW Camp known as the “Cornhusker POW Branch Camp.” There, prisoners were employed for “common labor” constructing additional facilities for the plant under the direction of army engineers.
Often prisoners were paid in coupons or canteen money equivalent to 80 cents per day. These were used to purchase toiletry items and occasionally cigarettes in rations.
The Cornhusker Camp, the only German POW Camp on a military location in Nebraska, closed in February 1945. Though Hall County made plans for the POWs return for the farming season.
In early summer, 1945, German POWs returned and were housed at the Dodge school.
Every morning consisted of the same routine: roll call, breakfast, and a morning salute. Details were delivered later and another head count would be conducted before the groups were sent to their designated areas.
(Pictured Left: This German prisoner received a cake from the Quandt family on his twenty-first birthday. Stuhr Museum )
When time, farmers would arrive in trucks to pick up the POWs. With larger groups, guards would ride along. Others would drive out to different details to ensure duties were being fulfilled. Since the War Department didn’t always provide German-speaking guards, a prisoner with sufficient English sometimes had to translate.
During and after the war, the American press rarely made a distinction between members of the Nazi Party and German draftees who were not necessarily as fanatically committed to Hitler. Hence, many of the guards (most of whom were soldier) were harsh to the prisoners. “Some must have thought we were all Nazis and had two horns on our forehead,” said Neubert. After a while, some guards had a change of heart, but others remained abrasive.
As for the farmers, a majority tried to help the POWs as much as they could within the rules. In the beginning, farmers were told to keep communication to a minimum, but unlike most places, a language barrier didn’t exist between many of the farmers and prisoners in Grand Island. As a result, some German POWs formed close relationships with them after the rules relaxed.
On their time off, prisoners were allowed free time in the yard, but were prohibited from approaching the fence. Despite this, some prisoners were sneaky enough to get cigarettes and other treats from beyond the fence.
After work, organized activities were provided at the Grand Island camps. Educational programs were conducted to study subjects such as democracy, the constitution, and American History. Ministers of different faith also visited for religious opportunities.
Eventually the need for prisoner war labor decreased as war plants closed and more laborers became available. As this era ended and POWs planned to return home, parties were held as a parting celebrations. Prisoners extended invitations to farmers and ministers, but guests were limited.
(German prisoners of war with members of the Quandt family, at the Quandt farm in Hall County, Nebraska. The German speaking Quandts employed prisoners throughout the 1944 and 1945 seasons. Stuhr Museum)
The Grand Island camp closed in November 1945. While the prisoners expected to return home, many were sent overseas to forced labor camps as European nations demanded German prisoners for “postwar reconstruction.” Even the United States continued to employ a percentage of the POWs until the spring of 1946. It wasn’t until 1947 that many of these prisoners made it home.
After returning home, some prisoners, like Dietmar Neubert, stayed in contact with the families they worked for. While the circumstances were unfavorable, this story provides a glimpse of humanity in a wartime setting.
The entire article can be found in the Spring 2021 edition of the Nebraska History Magazine. Members receive four issues per year.
Grand Island, Prisoners of War, German, World War II