TE Wolf

How 400,000 German POWs Spent World War II in the U.S.

It is simply a piece of World War II history that few people have a single clue about.

During the war, some 400,000 captured German soldiers were shipped across the Atlantic to prison camps dotted across the U.S., which is probably stunning news to most Americans even if they've studied the war in high school or college. 

Now, however,  that story is about to be told in a national radio special that will air Thursday at noon on KVMR (89.5 FM, kvmr.org streaming).

"Mine Enemy: the Story of German POWs in America" -- produced by Alison Jones with editor Deborah George for Backward Glance Productions -- tells the sound-rich story of those prisoners.

"Suddenly the enemy was hoeing the back garden, and sometimes, sitting at the kitchen table,"  Jones said.  "This hour-long special combines archival sound and period music with the voices of those who lived this most unusual moment in history."

The POWs  went to work on farms and in factories. And in small towns across America, two warring cultures came in close contact.

"It's the story of a remarkable and under-explored episode in history," added Jones.

For instance residents of Florence, South Carolina share vivid collections of the Germans' time there, while producers travel to Germany to hear former German POWs -- men now in their 80s and 90s -- describe the repercussions of their unexpected stays in states like Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and North Carolina.

"The arrival of the POWs was a big event in small towns in Texas, South Carolina and elsewhere," according to Jones, "and locals were fascinated by the enemy soldiers right in their midst."

The documentary also includes a segment about Camp Hearne, Texas, one of the nation's first and largest German POW camps, where culture bloomed until ardent Nazi factions seized control.

Meanwhile, the story takes a surprising turn towards its end.

"We learn about secret U.S. efforts to teach German soldiers about democracy," added Jones, "and we also hear about how the POWs are shown films of German concentration camps."

One former German POW -- now a U.S. citizen -- describes how he can't completely forget the Nazi songs of his youth, and shares the disturbing worlds of one such song.

"Mine Enemy" also boasts a veritable variety of music from the era, with artists ranging from Marlene Dietrich and Benny Goodman to Josh White, Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby and Duke Ellington.