Why build a POW camp in Algona?
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
That’s a great question.
By 1942, Great Britain was running out of room for all the enemy combatants who had been captured by the Allies in North Africa and Italy. It became clear that we (the United States) would need to take responsibility for the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of POWs (mostly German, but also Italian and the few Japanese who were captured in the Pacific). So, the U.S. government began identifying potential locations for POW camps. Some were attached to existing Army posts, some took over Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps that had been abandoned after the Great Depression of the 1930s, and some, like Camp Algona, were built from scratch from the ground up.
With millions of able-bodied American men signing up to fight after Pearl Harbor, most states found themselves woefully short of labor in several areas—farms, factories (not directly related to the war effort), orchards, nurseries, mills, and forests. Could POWs (selected from the lower-ranking enlisted men) fill the gap? Yes, they could.
In the 1940s, a sizeable number of older farmers in the northern Iowa area surrounding Algona were of German descent and could speak the language. That would help with communication. And, the two railroad lines passing through Algona would aid in delivering supplies and prisoners to the area. Another possible reason for choosing Algona may have been political. Vice President Henry Wallace (an Iowan by birth) had a substantial business interest in the Pioneer Seed Corn Company in Algona. They needed prisoner labor, too.
So, in the summer of 1943, the U.S. government purchased 287 acres of farmland just west of Algona’s city limits, and construction began in September. It was completed in four months. The first group of prisoners arrived in April 1944 and eventually ten thousand German POWs were processed through the camp.
Under the supervision of Camp Algona’s commanding officer, a total of thirty-four branch camps were established in North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. Prisoners, guards, and administrative staff were transferred to these camps as they were needed to meet labor demands.
Camp Algona was itself a small city. Besides the headquarters building and troop barracks, the American side of the camp contained mess halls, a post exchange store and snack bar, warehouses, a motor pool, carpenter shop, fire station, a guard house, and a corral for the horses that were used for guard patrol and pulling supply wagons. The camp theater building (where my protagonist Phee Swensson and Horst Ebinger, her German friend, meet in August 1944), was located not far from the camp headquarters. The theater was used for movies, religious services (including memorial services that were open to the public), stage presentations, and basketball games. The hospital, state-of-the-art for its time, was located inside the prisoner compound since the majority of overnight patients were POWs.
The prisoners at Camp Algona were well-treated. Unlike Germany and Japan, the United States followed the Geneva Convention protocols to the letter. Living conditions for prisoners mimicked those for the American soldiers in their own encampments—same barracks, food, and medical care. The prisoners were allowed ample opportunities to participate in music and theater groups, art, education, and sports. Keeping them busy and relatively contented was important for reducing potential escapes attempts (although escapes did happen), and maybe they’d write home about the fairness of their American captors. Would that fair treatment be reciprocated for Americans in German POW camps? One would hope.
By the fall of 1945, the war was over and camp officials began the process of shipping all those POWs home to Germany (or, in many cases, to England and France where they were put to work repairing the damage caused by the German air force, the Luftwaffe). The last prisoners left Camp Algona in February 1946. After the camp closed, all the surplus equipment and materials were auctioned off and all remnants of the camp were removed. Today, the Algona Airport occupies the land where Camp Algona once stood. (That’s me under the arrow in 2016, hoping I was standing in or near the camp theater location.)
Camp Algona had an enormous impact on Algona and all of Kossuth County. Perhaps, in many respects, accepting its presence was the most important war effort made by the community.
In 2016, I discovered there was a POW camp in the city where we live (another stunning revelation). A city department occupies two buildings that were used to house and feed German POWs during the war. As luck would have it, a friend from church oversees that city department and he gave Joe and me a tour one afternoon on our lunch hour. What fun! I’ve actually been inside buildings where German POWs slept and ate during World War II! For someone who, at the time, was planning to write a novel about a U.S. Army POW camp, that was a big deal!
When the city folks moved into those two buildings in the 1980s, they discovered a hole in one of the walls. One brave soul reached in and pulled out papers that had the names of the German prisoners typed on them. They were Erwin and Werner and Otto and Erich and Kurt and Jurgen. They were Walter and Hans and Helmut and Fritz and Wolf and Reinhard. They worked in nearby orchards, and I suspect, like most of their comrades in camps across America, they were just happy to be away from the war and its death and destruction.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.