In the heart of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, one mile west of the small town of Sidnaw, a POW Camp held 251 Germans from February of 1944 until April of 1946. The POWs held there experienced a much friendlier environment than expected while providing much-needed labor for the logging industry . The POWs were enemies of America when captured but many developed close relationships with local residents by the time the war ended and they were released back to their homeland .
As the United States and the Allied Forces began Operation Torch across North Africa, they were met by the stiff resistance of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrikakorps . As the Allied Forces advanced, they captured many Germans. The vast majority of the German POWs stationed at Sidnaw came from the 1943 surrender of Rommel’s Army in Tunisia . Although most of those in the Sidnaw POW camp were drafted soldiers, there were some SS troops held there. The United States had never before stationed a large number of POWs on the home front . There were as many as 370,000 German POWs stationed on American soil during WWII . Initially, many were placed into former Civilian Conservation Corps Camps . Camp Sidnaw was one of the former CCC work camps the POWs were sent to. Many logging outfits and pulpwood contractors asked for the POWs to be sent to the Upper Peninsula to help cut pulpwood .
After capture, the Germans were loaded onto empty troop ships and shipped back to the States. The journey back was slow and the ships were escorted by convoys to counter the constant threat of the German U-Boats. They arrived in the ports of Boston, Norfolk, and New York. Many POWs were shocked to learn they had been misled by the Nazi propaganda. As one POW commented upon seeing the city of New York with its buildings standing tall and untouched, “our morale could not become worse” . They had been led to believe the big cities in the United States had been flattened by bombers . The POWs were divided into regional base camps before further dividing into individual camps. Those who were sent to Sidnaw came from Fort Sheridan, Illinois. As they were “distributed” around the country, many similar stories unfolded. In Sidnaw, the German troops were laughing and joking as they were let off the train in front of a small crowd of locals hoping to see what “the enemy” would look like . For the Germans coming from the deserts of Africa, the cold, snowy Upper Penninsula seemed much more like home . Many waved and threw candy to local children as they were moved into the camps . They were, of course, nervous and unsure of their future but, overall, in good spirits.
The former CCC camps already had many of the necessary buildings in place before the decision was made to bring the POWs into them. They had barracks, a recreation yard, shower facilities, a library, and a mess hall. The only upgrades necessary for POW Camp usage were the guard towers . The Sidnaw Camp, like most of the U.P. Camps, did not even have any type of fence surrounding it. Instead, the POWs were given strict boundaries which they adhered to. Each barrack held thirty bunks and was kept warm with two wood stoves. The outside of each building was wrapped in tar paper. Roofing was typical of the era and consisted of cedar shakes or homemade shingles . Although the camp originally had single bunks, double bunks were eventually installed to increase the capacity of each barrack . The wooden buildings were said to be “very clean… …. And well outfitted” by International Committee of the Red Cross inspector Cardinaux . The camp had electricity, which powered the lights and water pumps in the barracks . The Geneva Convention laid out exact standards for a POW camp and the life of the POWs themselves. Based on these standards, the camps were well supplied with sleeping arrangements of army cots and bunks, army blankets, and full showers . The majority opinion was that Camp Sidnaw was very comfortable .
The POWs had plenty of things to do while in camp. Popular games were chess, ping-pong, and soccer . Otherwise, they could attend music and theatre performances, read books or censored newspapers, or even learn to play musical instruments . There was plenty of talent amongst the Germans and many skilled woodworks, drawings, and musical performances were completed . There were competitions as well. They even had a “track meet” and gave individual winners medals . The German’s could also read books and magazines sent to them from the German Red Cross. At the POWs request, musical instruments were purchased (with the prisoners’ pay from working). The only other request they had for the ICRC on May 3, 1944 was for more books . In a later visit (September 1, 1944), the ICRC once again reported adequate conditions and entertainment. Musicians at Camp Sidnaw had progressed and there was a twelve-piece orchestra made of POWs who played every Sunday. Wood carvers had requested various chisels to further their abilities. The POWs were planning a chess tournament with a prize for first place . So, it is fair to say they had plenty of opportunities to try to get their minds off missing home.
According to the Geneva Convention of 1929: Article 27, the POWs were to be given the equivalent medical attention that the troops would receive . The camp had its own infirmary which served the needs of both the POWs and the guards. The infirmary housed both medical and dental personnel and materials. There was also an ambulance kept in camp in case of a serious injury or sickness . When the POWs went to work in the woods cutting pulpwood, one of their fellow POWs (a German medic) would accompany them in case first aid was needed . In order to limit injury, and according with Article 32 of the Geneva Convention, the POWs were only assigned to cutting the smaller, less dangerous trees .
Life While Working
The Geneva Convention of 1929 had eight articles relating to the working conditions and regulations of POWs: Articles 27 through 34. They gave the U.S. permission to have the German’s work while heavily regulating the work. For example, unless the individual officers specified otherwise, they could not be forced into manual labor. Instead they could be given roles of supervision over work crews. The POWs had to be given similar care, wages, safety measures, and food to that which an equivalent American would be given. No POW could be forced to work if he was physically unable to complete the task. The POWs could not be forced to work excessive amounts. Plus, the POWs could not be forced to work in anything war-related. The Camp Commander was in charge of overseeing all regulations were met .
POWs made up over half of foreign laborers during the last few years of World War II . The POWs provided over a third of Michigan’s agricultural labor in 1944. Many employers were extremely satisfied with the POWs work. L.R. Stewart, who had POWs working for him at the Michigan Sugar Company’s Caro Plant, said the POWs did, “quite satisfactory work… … considering the fact many of them had not done any manual labor since being captured in North Africa”. The POWs were paid eighty cents per work day on top of a ten cent allowance for use at the camp “store” .
As previously stated, a central reason the POWs were stationed at Camp Sidnaw was to make up for the lost labor in the logging industry. The POWs were given the opportunity to work in exchange for coupons for cigarettes, candy, or even beer . This was in an attempt to alleviate the labor shortage here in the United States during to the war . In the logging industry, employment dropped roughly twenty percent in the six months prior to February of 1943 as the war effort called for more men . During daylight hours, the POWs were either in camp doing maintenance work or out in the woods with the loggers . The POWs in Sidnaw worked for individual logging outfits, under the William Bonifas Lumber Company. The POWs would cut and peel trees used for pulpwood. Initially, tools were intentionally broken and little progress was made. Even those who were trying to work hard did a lot of damage. Many of the POWs had no experience with logging and tools were quickly made dull and accidentally broken. The loggers were actually losing money by hiring the POWs. However, their allowance per day was meager at best and they soon realized they were going to have to cut the required number of logs a day regardless of the condition of their equipment. Soon, the POWs took pride in their work and looked down upon their fellow POWs who would stir up trouble or damage their equipment. They began working hard and would often fulfill their quota by ten in the morning and would spend the rest of the day around fires, singing and smoking . Another reason for their change of attitude can be attributed to being forced to walk twelve miles back to camp after a particularly unproductive day . Despite the Army warning against such, the loggers, guards, and POWs developed healthy relationships that, over time, would develop into lasting friendships.
Many guards considered these open, friendly relationships as a good way to prevent issues and maintain control of the camp. The small size of Camp Sidnaw, like most of the Michigan POW Camps, led to closer relationships between the guards and POWs. The guards were very comfortable with the POWs and often would settle in for a nap while the POWs worked. When questioned about the whereabouts of his rifle, one guard replied “They (the POWs) are not going anywhere”. In some cases, the locals also were also close with the POWs. There are countless memories of POWs having contact with children without any concern. Two farmers from Frankenmuth even named their son’s after former POWs . As a boy, James Goodell of Marquette, yelled, “You dirty Nazi’s!” toward a group of POWs he saw in town and was quickly reminded with a kick in the rear from his uncle that he must show them respect .
Following the war, many former POWs kept in touch with those they had met in America. In letters of such correspondence, one POW remembers, “Being a POW was a good life. We have seen so many things and become acquainted with so many people. I will never pity that” . Even the Commander at Camp Sidnaw, Captain Hugh Lee, kept in touch with some of his former POWs. Letters to him often were reflective of the quality of attention and friendship they received. One POW wrote, “We often thought about the very good time we had in Sidnaw. I am very thankful to you for all the good that you did for our camp”. After the war ended, many former German POWs wished (some did even make it back) to revisit the United States to see the people they had become friends with .
Partly due to the friendships, there was very little serious thought of escape by the POWs . Escapes were rare but did happen a few times . Usually though, an escape alarm was due to a mistake somewhere. When it was discovered that two men had “escaped” from Camp Sidnaw, a quick search found the two men walking back to camp. They had been accidentally missed at headcount but were on their way back to the camp . In another instance, a POW was forgotten in the woods and when they realized he was missing, he was already walking back to the camp, furious that he had been left behind. A majority of the POWs realized even if they escaped, they would have nowhere to go and quickly be caught . The POWs were given uniforms clearly marked with “PW”. A German-speaking man in a “PW” uniform couldn’t exactly blend in very well. Many were more concerned with escaping the hard-core Nazi’s running daily affairs within the camp than the Americans guarding them. Positive relationships with Americans were more common than not. So, many POWs saw themselves as fortunate. They had moderate freedom, a roof over their head, good food, a decent job, and clothes on their backs. Many of their family and friends back home in Germany couldn’t say the same .
The End of the War and Going Home
When the War in Europe ended on V-E Day, the POWs were supposed to be returned to Germany in accordance with the Geneva Convention . Instead, they were shipped back overseas to Britain and France to help rebuild the demolished cities . Many POWs lost some of the newly gained respect for Americans when they saw firsthand the extent of demolition of the European cities. They didn’t realize people who could be so nice could contribute to such destruction . One POW described this progression of hope to disappointment, “We were full of hope to go home, but it was a mistake. I had been there (Liverpool) almost 15 months” . Many realized how well they had been treated in Sidnaw. One even went as far as saying, “… (I) want to spend, for each day here, two in your country” .
The extent of destruction in Germany surpassed what the POWs could have imagined. Even when the Germans were allowed to go back home, life did not get any easier. Many had extreme difficulties finding steady work. Some returned to find their homes in a pile of rubble and their families’ dead or missing. A former POW wrote back to an American friend, “Here it is awful and terrible misery dominates” . The combination of war-torn Europe and the worst harvest in a hundred years resulted in unprecedented hardships. Many POWs often did not have enough food for their families’ and tobacco was a luxury they had to do without. As living conditions only worsened, the German’s began to ask the Americans to send what food and supplies they could spare. The proud Germans sheepishly accepted the help with extreme gratefulness. Soon, the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (CARE) was founded to send aid to all of Europe. Many of the local residents, who had become friends with the POWs, began to send care packages overseas in an effort to help out .
In the eyes of the local Sidnaw residents, the Germans went from the worst of enemies to good friends as they met, worked alongside, and learned about them. Although not a lot remains of the old POW camp at Sidnaw, the memories and friendships created there have stood the test of time with several former POWs revisiting the camp in years since .
- International Committee of the Red Cross (1929). “Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 27 July 1929.” Articles 27-34.
- Cardinaux, A. (1944). “Report of Visit to Camp Sidnaw, MI”. Camp Sidnaw: A World War II German Prisoner of War Camp, (Monette): 65-76.
- Hong, Howard (1944). “Report of Visit to Camp Sidnaw, MI”. Camp Sidnaw: A World War II German Prisoner of War Camp, (Monette): 87-90.
- Hall, Kevin T. (2015). “The Befriended Enemy: German Prisoners of War in Michigan,” Michigan Historical Review 41.1: 57-79.
- Monette, Clarence J. (2012). Camp Sidnaw: A World War II German Prisoner of War Camp. Calumet.
- Pepin, John (2005). POW Camps in the U.P.. Marquette.
- Heisler, Barbara Schmitter (2007). The “Other Braceros” Temporary Labor and German Prisoners of War in the United States, 1943-1946,” Social Science History 31.2: 239-271.