By Mickey Tibbits, Special to The Free Press
Long before Guantanamo Bay, about 400,000 prisoners of war were held on American soil during World War II with 6,000 German and Italian POWs living and working in Minnesota.
From area POW camps in southern Minnesota at Montgomery, New Ulm, Faribault, Owatonna, Fairmont, Wells, Hollandale and St. Charles the prisoners, usually without a guard, worked on farms, at canneries and for small businesses, earning 10 cents an hour. They replaced the American workers serving in the military.
Prisoners were housed in the Fairmont 4-H building on the fairgrounds. After the local paper reported two local women sneaked under the camp fence to be with the prisoners, the commanding officer declared, “It just isn’t policy for anything in skirts. ... to come waggling feminine figures around here.” Such incidents angered local residents and soldiers fighting overseas. J.A. Marxhausen, a Courtland German-speaking pastor, asked local residents to treat the prisoners the same as they would want captured U.S. soldiers to be treated.
Two family members from New Ulm, with a large German population, drove to the POW camp and took a prisoner they knew home with them. He stayed with the family overnight and attended church the next morning before returning to camp. The two were arrested and fined $300 each. Interestingly, their trial testimony stated that when they honked the car’s horn, several other prisoners came out thinking it was their ride.
Plans to establish a Blue Earth POW camp were abandoned when labor from Mexico filled the void. A primitive Wells camp was set up to house first German, then Italian POWs to work in the town’s canning and poultry processing factories.
At the war’s end many of the German prisoners sent back were forced to work in English and French coal mines for as long as two years before they were returned home. Other prisoners being repatriated asked to be released in areas of Germany held by the Allies and not in Russian sectors. About 5,000 former POW Germans later came back to the U.S. and became citizens.