By Vanessa Wolf
Sixteen million Americans were sent overseas to serve in World War II. An estimated 120,000 spent at least a portion of the war behind barbed wire. Of the 27,000 American soldiers captured by the Japanese, 40% are believed to have died in captivity.
In Europe, it’s believed 93,941 Allied soldiers were held during the course of the war, and 92,820 eventually returned home. Meanwhile, from as early as 1942 through late 1946, an estimated 425,000 Axis prisoners—primarily German, but also Italian and Japanese—lived in 700 camps throughout the United States, including South Carolina.
In the spring of 1943, after victories in North Africa, the number of German POWs had grown to unmanageable numbers. It was impractical to house and feed so many in these war-torn regions, and empty transport ship returned to the United States every day. Soon, shiploads of captured Nazi soldiers landed daily in Boston and Newport News harbors daily.
The captured European soldiers identified as holding the most strident Nazi beliefs—Third Reich leaders, Gestapo agents and self-identified extremists—were sent to Camp Alva in Oklahoma, which reached between 1,200 and 1,500 prisoners at its peak. Those soldiers were held under close surveillance and granted few privileges. Other POWs were first moved to military bases and former Civilian Conservation Corps camps to minimize escapes.
As the number of POWs grew, military and civilian leaders decided to make greater use of these able-bodied prisoners by sending them into rural areas in need of laborers.
While the Geneva Convention of 1929 did not require that POWs receive payment, the U.S. government granted them 10 cents a day in canteen chits, with higher-ranking officers receiving slightly more. Those who volunteered to work—typically in mess halls or laundries at the base or performing general labor for private contractors—earned another 80 cents, the same amount an American private was paid at the start of the war. Those funds could be used to buy luxuries such as beer, candy and tobacco, and any unspent money was held in reserve until a peacetime.
By April 1944, South Carolina had five camps with approximately 250 men assigned to each. Those working outside the base were often placed in tent-based compounds close to their employers. The work often involved cutting trees for pulpwood or performing work on local farms. The civilian employers of these prisoners were required to prove there was insufficient available local labor.
The U.S. Military billed the farmers and business owners the prevailing wage for the prisoners’ services, and what was not paid to the prisoner was used for the costs to operate the camps.
In 1941, several former cotton fields made way for Marlboro Aviation School, a training facility for the 55th Army Air Corps. Set on SC Highway 9 West near its intersection with Beauty Spot Road West, the airfield included barracks, a ground school and several administration buildings. It was later renamed Palmer Field in honor of Captain William W. Palmer, a Bennettsville resident who earned a Distinguished Service Cross in WWI. At the Bennettsville training facility, young cadets were taught to fly the PT-17 Stearman biplane. During the next three years, the school trained 6,410 pilots before closing as a military base in October 1944.
Less than two months later, the barracks reopened as a POW camp for an estimated 244 Germans. The prisoners assisted the labor-starved agricultural and pulp and paper industries. In most cases, these were not the professions the POWs had practiced in Germany, and the farmers and overseers were tasked with their training.
By the middle of 1945, roughly 8,000 former Axis soldiers lived and worked in the Palmetto State. Twenty encampments spread across 17 counties, with one located just outside of Bennettsville.
The YMCA and Red Cross officials who inspected the POW camps between 1944 and 1946 reported the South Carolina camps had relatively pleasant conditions. While most were encampments and lacked recreational facilities or other amenities, officials found that the prisoners were allowed comforts such as planting robust gardens and building themselves furniture from salvaged lumber.
Such romantic notions aside, the prisoners were no doubt faced with drudgery, boredom and despair at their circumstances. Most lost considerable weight and labored under fears they might be deported to Russia at any time.
As awareness of the Holocaust grew, a decided change in attitude swept through America. By 1945, virulent anti-Nazi feelings had surfaced and only a fraction of prisoners were still willing to join outside work details.
In the years that followed, many former POWs later returned to visit their former encampments, which had reportedly become a place that had saved their lives. Between 1947 and 1960, an estimated 5,000 men who had spent between one and three years as prisoners of war on American soil immigrated back to America.
In her 2013 book, “From German Prisoner of War to American Citizen: A Social History with 35 Interviews,” author Barbara Schmitter Heisler interviewed some of these immigrants. One of her subjects, identified only as Robert M., spent time at Palmer Field.
Robert was born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1919 and became an early member of the Nazi Party, joining the Arbeitdienst in 1938. In 1939, he volunteered for the paratroopers, and in December 1942, he married his wife, Olivia. Robert was later dispatched to North Africa, and became a POW in April 1943 near Tunis, Tunisia. He spent several weeks in a British camp near Bône (now Annaba), Algeria, where he reported that the “treatment was gentleman-like.” He was then transported to Oran, but the camp lacked sufficient food and water.
“Most of us lost our Tropen (tropics) wristwatches to American guards,” he said.
Weeks later, Robert traveled by train to Casablanca, Morocco, from where he boarded and crossed the Atlantic by American transport ship. He arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, in June 1943.
“It took us four weeks to make this crossing,” Robert recalled. “We were very hungry.”
He was then put on a train to Alabama and placed in Camp Aliceville. He transferred to Camp McCain in Mississippi in April 1944. In June 1945, Robert was transferred to Palmer Field.
Robert spent four months at Palmer picking peanuts and cotton. Schmitter Heisler wrote, “Working on various farms, Robert recalled that he helped a farmer take his tobacco to a market. ‘That man,
I wish I could remember his name, gave me a quarter and told me to buy myself an ice cream. But I didn’t. I was so excited to have some real money that I just kept it until it was time to return to Europe.’
“Another farmer, Mr. K.B. Hodges, served him and his men a sweet potato pie, while Mrs. Hodges provided ice-cold water and served lunch, including ‘very large watermelons.’ Grateful for the treatment, Robert and his men repaired three of Mr. Hodges’ trucks.”
The war ended September 2, 1945, and Palmer Field was deactivated shortly thereafter. The site later functioned as a drive-in movie theater, and after that as a chicken farm. In the early 1960s, Powell Manufacturing purchased the land to produce tobacco-growing equipment.
On May 27, 1946, Robert was returned to Salzburg. Shortly thereafter, he and his wife started emigration procedures.
While this may seem unfathomable, Ms. Schmitter Heisler explained, “The returning POWs had been in America before. Although as prisoners of war, they had not been free to come and go as they pleased, the circumstances and conditions of their internment in America had provided them with first-hand experiences. These included opportunities to interact with Americans, learn English and see different parts of the country. For them, America was not an abstraction or an image of a place they had read or heard about or seen in movies. It was a place where they had gathered personal experiences, providing them with a sense of knowing the country, of having seen how people live. For former POWs, immigration was less of a leap of faith or a journey into the unknown. It was more like a homecoming.”
It’s impossible to know whether these former Nazi soldiers and their families would have immigrated had they not been former POWs on American soil.