Since this coming Monday is the 67th anniversary of D-Day, I got to thinking not only of the brave young men who went ashore in France on June 6, 1944, but the Germans soldiers who were captured that day and over the following 11 months as the Allied forces advanced toward and into Germany. What happened to them and other Axis soldiers when they became prisoners of war?
Not surprisingly, there is quite a bit of information online about POWs the Allies captured during World War II so I decided to narrow my investigation to the role that Minnesota - home base for the CAF Red Tail - played in managing POWs who were shipped to America.
There were 20 POW camps set up across Minnesota. Most were "branch" camps administered by Camp Algona in Iowa. Trusted inmates eventually worked for a small hourly wage either in town or in the fields. During downtime, they entertained themselves with music, reading and card games. One of the biggest events in the Algona camp system was the introduction of a newspaper in 1944. It was compiled at Camp Algona but often had stories about the branch camps.
Written in German, many issues of Die Drahtpost ("the wire post office" (i.e. where news was sent to a central site via telegraph)) were translated into English after the war and archived. Written by the inmates, each issue contained summaries of world news and war developments (gleaned from the local English newspapers), essays and short stories, reports from the stage and soccer field, poems, and crossword puzzles. Paper was scarce so each issue was treated with care so everyone had a chance to read it. Editorial content was very much pro-German with a subtle yet hopeful message that the Germans could still win the war.
When the war in Europe ended, Die Drahtpost was retired and replaced with Die Lagerzeitung ("camp newspaper") which focused more on the future. Most POWs would not return home for years after the war and stories and articles in Die Lagerzeitung helped them accept that fact. In fact, of the almost 400,000 German POWs in the U.S. as of May 1945, only a 100,000 were returned to Germany by summer 1946. The others languished in French coal mines or land-mine-clearing crews and on English farms until late 1948. They worked side-by-side with the locals all day but at night were still very much prisoners living behind barbed wire and watch towers.
30 Tuskegee Airmen were held as POWs in Germany after being shot down during World War II. While it was not a pleasant way to spend the rest of the war, after they were released, many Airmen reported that the Germans had treated them decently for two reasons: the Germans knew who the "red-tail" pilots were and had respect for their piloting skills and the Germans were not prejudiced against people with black skin.
After the war was over, the Tuskegee Airmen who had been POWs returned to the U.S. When they got off the ship, they saw signs that said "White Only" and "Black Only" on drinking fountains and bathroom doors. They appreciated the irony that they had been treated more equitably by the enemy than they would be by their countrymen - for whom they had fought - now that they were home again
The CAF Red Tail Project is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.