"Hospitality Is the Best Form of Propaganda": German Prisoners of War in Western Massachusetts, 1944-1946

By Bonafilia, John C. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

"Hospitality Is the Best Form of Propaganda": German Prisoners of War in Western Massachusetts, 1944-1946


Bonafilia, John C., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


A little more than a year after U.S. entry into World War II, the United States held 1,881 enemy prisoners of war within its continental boundaries. At Great Britain's urging, the United States established a prisoner of war (POW) work program under the auspices of the Provost Marshal General of the army's office. The POW workers were intended to free up U.S. soldiers for battle, as well as to augment labor shortages in a number of domestic industries, including agriculture. The program ultimately consisted of 155 base camps and 511 branch camps in forty-five of the existing forty-eight states. Typical camp leadership consisted of three primary army officers - the camp commander, his executive officer, and a special projects officer. With the approval of the Provost Marshal's Office, the commander and employer (farmer) would negotiate the amount to be paid to the United States for the use of POW labor. The arrangement is estimated to have provided nearly $230 million in economic benefits to the United States. By the war's end, the number peaked at 425,871 prisoners, and of these, approximately 87 percent, or almost 372,000, were Germans.1

Camp Westover Field in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, was activated as a prisoner of war branch camp on September 28, 1944, to address local agricultural manpower shortages.2 The initial allocation was 250 POWs, but filling manpower shortages on- and off-base proved so successful that military personnel and local farmers requested and received another 250 workers. At its peak, Camp Westover Field housed 701 prisoners of war.3 Noncommissioned prisoners were required to work and were paid eighty cents a day for their efforts.4 Most POWs worked on base and filled a variety of positions such as cooks, kitchen helpers, garage mechanics, bakers, construction workers, gardeners, and general maintenance workers. In addition, a large number worked off-base on local farms picking tobacco and harvesting vegetables. And despite rules against fraternization, these POWs interacted with local farmers in ways that would leave lasting impressions on both farmers and prisoners.

The U.S. government recognized that the POWs at Westover, and across the country, would one day be repatriated in Germany and, as a group, might have a powerful voice in postwar German affairs. Their treatment and experiences in the camps would shape their opinions and feelings concerning America and could possibly affect future relations between the nations. The following pages describe the conditions for German POWs at Camp Westover, interactions among prisoners, soldiers, and local farmers, and general impressions held by both groups during and after the war. Research suggests that while the federal government had implemented the Special Projects Program to positively influence German POWs' perceptions of the United States, prisoners were more significantly impacted by the kindness of local residents than by the reeducation and propaganda efforts.5

CONDITIONS AT CAMP WESTOVER FIELD

Camp Westover Field was situated approximately two miles from Chicopee Falls and about ten miles northeast of Springfield. It was located on an isolated section of Westover Army Air Force Base. The prisoner of war camp covered approximately two acres with eleven buildings and ten barracks.6 The camp was overseen by Captain John Shields, First Lieutenant Fred Reisner, and Second Lieutenant Daniel Pfenning. Most Westover POWs arrived on U.S. soil through Boston Harbor in the cargo holds of returning Liberty ships. Prisoners remembered being shipped from the English coastline in convoys as large as ninety ships. Upon arriving at Boston, all POWs were deloused, given prison garb, and then transported via Pullman rail cars from Boston to Springfield and then by truck to Camp Westover Field.7 In Nazi Prisoners of War in America, historian Arnold Krammer stated that "each prisoner was required to fill out a three page form which requested his personal and medical history, fingerprints, serial numbers, an inventory of personal effects, and information about his capture as noted on the tag still hanging from his tunic. …

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