As he watched hundreds of German prisoners of war march through his little town of Eaton, Indiana, in 1945, Marshal Earl Jefferson Sr. was worried about many things, but he later told family members one of his biggest concerns: How would he keep the women of the town away from the POWs?
“Fraternization” with locals was one of many concerns for the townspeople who lived near the 700 prison camps scattered across the United States in World War II. More than 400,000 German and Italian soldiers taken prisoner during the war were held in the camps, which were usually in rural areas.
The camps are largely forgotten now, and the passage of time has left few signs of where they stood. A detailed history of the camps can be hard to come by because contemporary newspaper coverage of the camps was cursory and military regulations reportedly made it against the law to take pictures of the camps. Some photos exist, as do brief newspaper articles and oral histories passed down to younger generations.
The German POW camps were a very different thing from the internment camps where 120,000 Americans of Japanese history and descent were imprisoned after Pearl Harbor. Two-thirds of the people imprisoned in the internment camps were U.S. citizens. Most lost their homes and way of life when they were forced into internment. The Germans in POW camps were soldiers and enemy combatants captured during the war, and they were paid to labor in factories adjacent to the camps.
And in some odd way, they became part of the communities where they were imprisoned. At least one German soldier imprisoned in the Eaton camp returned to the area after the war and lived the rest of his life there.
Scant Notice of Prisoners Coming
A couple of brief articles appearing in the two newspapers in Muncie, Indiana, were very nearly the extent of the advance coverage of the Eaton, Indiana, German POW camp.
On July 28, 1945, The Muncie Star and Muncie Evening Press reported that German prisoners would be processed through Camp Atterbury, the large U.S. military base in Edinburgh, Indiana, for ultimate housing and labor in Eaton, a town of about 1,400 people north of Muncie in Delaware County.
Construction of the camp would begin within two days, the newspapers reported, although some histories indicate the construction of the camp had already begun by that point. The camp was built on 17 acres near the Eaton Canning Company, a division of Butterfield Canning Company, and the 600 prisoners would be made to work while being held at the camps. The camp, mostly tents in which prisoners would live, would be built by prisoner “trustys,” who were the first 50 men to arrive.
“About 600 prisoners will be brought to Eaton to help harvest tomatoes and work in canning factories,” the newspapers reported. “The camp will serve an area of a thirty or forty-mile radius.” A Camp Atterbury official said work was to be complete by mid-August and most of the 600 would be on hand by the first of September.
The camp was the fifth in Indiana, following or constructed at the same time as camps in Windfall, Austin, Morristown, and Vincennes.
Brigadier General Ernest Bixby of Camp Atterbury said it was War Department policy that prisoner labor would be used for a job only if civilian labor was unavailable.
In Indiana, a trade group of food canning companies, the Indiana Canners Association, had requested prisoners for labor and had to attest that there was not sufficient citizen labor available. The prisoners would work at least eight hours per day and be paid, at least according to early newspaper accounts, 80 cents per day, and that could be used only in the camp commissary for essential items.
The need for workers was there. The Bureau of Agriculture reported that 2 million American men had left their agricultural jobs in the two years leading up to July 1942. They went to work in war manufacturing or enlisted in the military itself. The earliest enemy combatants-turned-POWs came to the U.S. in 1942. They initially worked on the West Coast but the government began deploying POWs across the country.
The military tried to assure Eaton residents that prisoners would not be given rationed foods like “butter, sugar, choice cuts of meat or any other scarce commodities” and that it would be safe to have them in the community, maintaining that the ratio of prisoners to guards would be similar to that of prisons.
History would show that the guards were not always sufficient.
Risk and the Geneva Convention
The initial influx of prisoners shipped to and held in the United States was made up of prisoners who had been captured by British forces, but the United Kingdom said it was didn’t have room to house them all. In the United States, camps were hastily built in 46 states. The prisoners were put to work cutting timber or harvesting peanuts or picking cotton, according to a history from the North Carolina Museum of History. The POWs weren’t all Germans, either: Tens of thousands of Benito Mussolini’s Italian forces ended up in the U.S.
Not all the German soldiers were Nazis, the North Carolina history noted. Some were not even Germans, but men from Poland and other countries occupied by Germany, who were forced to wear German uniforms and fight.
The low-key news coverage of the hundreds of thousands of POWs in the United States that readers saw in their local newspapers was the pattern elsewhere, the North Carolina historians said. One reason was to minimize the security risk, but also because the Geneva Convention – one version of which was ratified by countries around the globe in 1929 – ensured that POWs not be subject to public ridicule.
In a number of instances, though, ridicule was the last thing the people of the towns near the POW camps had in mind.
Bette Greene’s 1973 book Summer of My German Soldier, which was made into a TV movie in 1978, was about a 12-year-old Jewish girl living near a fictional camp in Arkansas, befriends a POW who is half-German and half-English and who is not an adherent of the cult of Hitler and Nazi beliefs. Greene’s book was highly praised.
But it was not the girls, but the older women of the town of Eaton, that the town’s marshal was worried about.
‘Pretty Friendly’ POWs
“My husband’s step-grandfather, Mr. Earl Jefferson Sr., was town marshal of Eaton when the prison camp was erected, and also throughout the time the prisoners were here,” Sharon Hines wrote in a 1967 term paper. “He says he can remember how the townspeople reacted when the prisoners got off the train and were marched down the main street of town to the prison camp.
“He said the only trouble they had was not with the prisoners themselves but keeping the women (living in the town) in bounds, knowing that there were so many men around.”
In a 2007 story in The Star Press newspaper in Muncie, Anita Wright, the Eaton Public Library director, remembered hearing her husband’s great aunt occasionally discuss the camp.
“She (the aunt) and her friends would go walking downtown on a Saturday night and then over to the camp and talk through the fence. Some of the prisoners were pretty friendly.”
The term paper, written by Sharon Hines, recounted much of the history of the Eaton camp that had been written by John Harris, director of the local history services department of the Indiana Historical Society.
Harris’ writing about the Eaton camp is among the most detailed in existence and includes interviews, conducted over various decades, and focuses on other day-to-day experiences for the camp. Harris inspected Army records to supplement the interviews he conducted.
One history of the camp from Harris reported that a 10-foot barbed wire fence surrounded the Eaton camp and guard towers were erected at two corners of the 17-acre site. Each tower was big enough for one guard with a machine gun.
Prisoners were supposed to keep away from the fence, but some were known to taunt the guards by getting within a few feet of the barrier.
Five tents were built for the prisoners as well as a latrine, a small library, and small commissary, or store. A hand-produced history of the camp at Austin, Indiana, which appears to be a joint publication of Germans and Americans, indicated that the camp also had a small chapel for church services and a hidden moonshine still.
Prisoners in the Eaton camp were sent to work at canneries throughout the area. The prisoner makeup of the Eaton camp in one report seen by Harris was 377 German privates, 22 prisoner non-commissioned officers, and a few dozen prisoners who did not or could not work. This snapshot of the camp’s population on one day did not match the 600-inmate number that was often cited, but the total was closer to the higher number when 100 more prisoners were added in September. At that time, reports indicated, 44 American enlisted men guarded the plant.
The public, particularly in the town of Eaton, was kept in the dark about potentially concerning events and changes at the camp. Harris said that it wasn’t widely known that when the camp at Windfall, Indiana, was flooded, the prisoners there were brought to Eaton, where the town’s population was a little more than 1,400.
“At this time, there were more prisoners living on the 17-acre field than there were citizens in the town,” Harris wrote.
The lack of information went both ways, of course: One prisoner was surprised that a truckload of the product was bound for Chicago because he had been told that German bombing had destroyed the city.
Harris said most of the prisoners behaved because they felt they were treated well at the Eaton camp. Punishment was meted out at times: Prisoners who misbehaved were required to get on their hands and knees on a road that ran through the camp and overturn, by hand, each of the small stones that made up the road.
Legacy of the Camps Remains
Harris wrote that only one prisoner escaped from the camp and returned, on his own, after a few days.
“When questioned as to his whereabouts while gone, he stated that he had stayed with a woman in an adjoining town,” Harris wrote.
The Eaton camp was decommissioned in November 1945. The war was over by that time and, more to the point for Indiana canning companies so was the season for picking and canning tomatoes and other vegetables.
Although no immediately recognizable remains of the Eaton camp are still standing, the legacy of POW camps in the United States remains. Online histories of the camps note that a number of prisoners, sent back home to Germany when the war was over, chose to come back to the United States.
One former prisoner at the Eaton camp, Oskar Wagner, returned to Delaware County and lived here for decades. For many years, he was active in the city’s annual Kiwanis Christmas tree sales lot. He died in 2014 at age 97 and is buried in city-owned Beech Grove Cemetery.
He told an interviewer in 2008, when he was 92, that, “I’ve never felt so grateful as I do now.” His life had led him from conscription in the German army to capture and prisoner of war status to getting permission to return to the United States to settle in the area where he had been a prisoner.