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“We . . . Are the Most Fortunate of Prisoners”: The Axis POW Experience at Camp Opelika during World War II While prisoners of war (POWs) have experienced danger and death throughout modern warfare, never has a conflict been as deadly for POWs as World War II. During the war an estimated 35 million soldiers were captured. Many of these prisoners faced starvation, exposure to the elements, epidemic disease, and cold brutality from their captors. Despite such international agreements as the Geneva Convention of 1929, approximately five million POWs died during World War II, most notoriously on the Eastern Front where both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union treated their prisoners with criminal callousness, and in the Pacific War, where the 132,000 Allied POWs captured by the Japanese endured such extremes of brutality that more than 35,000 of them (27 percent) died during their captivity.1 Despite the horrors that faced POWs in every theater of the war, pockets of humanity and compassion did exist, where the laws of war were respected and enemies treated as human beings. One such place was Camp Opelika, a POW camp for approximately 3,000 German soldiers located in Lee County in east-central Alabama—a wartime haven where enemy prisoners received humane treatment Daniel Hutchinson Daniel Hutchinson is an assistant professor of history at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont , North Carolina. Daniel would like to thank the following for their assistance in preparing this article and in documenting the German POW experience in Alabama: Dr. James Tent, Joachim Metzner, Mary Bess Paluzzi of the Aliceville Museum and Cultural Center, Dr. Maxine Jones, Ashley Greene, and Meghan Martinez. Special thanks goes to the editors and anonymous reviewers of the Alabama Review for their comments and suggestions , and to the Museum of East Alabama for generously providing images for this article. 1 S. P. MacKenzie, “The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II,” Journal of Modern History 66 (September 1994): 487; John Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York, 1986), 48. the alabama review 286 by members of the American military and by the people of Alabama. The prisoners at Camp Opelika considered themselves “the most fortunate of prisoners.”2 Camp Opelika’s story is a part of the remarkable experience of the approximately 425,000 Axis POWs held in the United States during World War II.3 By the war’s end more than five hundred POW camps were built to house some 370,000 German, 50,000 Italian, and 5,000 Japanese prisoners.4 Approximately 16,000 of these prisoners were interned in Alabama within twenty-four camps scattered across the state. Various aspects of the history of Alabama’s POWs have been addressed in previous scholarship.5 With the exception of the work of local historian Albert Killian, however, the history of Camp Opelika has been largely unaddressed.6 Camp Opelika is nonetheless worthy of attention. In many ways, the facility typifies the overall Axis POW experience in America during World War II. By understanding this camp’s history the larger story of German POWs across the United States becomes clearer. Camp Opelika also possessed characteristics 2 Edouard Patte, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Inspection Report, September 18, 1945, Records of the Office of the Provost Marshal General, Record Group (RG) 389, entry 459A, box 1618, file 255, Camp Opelika, National Archives and Records Administration , Archives II, College Park, MD (hereafter cited as PMGO Records, NARA II). 3 Notable works in the scholarly literature regarding the German POW experience in America not noted elsewhere in this article include: Robert D. Billinger Jr., Hitler’s Soldiers in the Sunshine State: German POWs in Florida (Gainesville, FL, 2000), and Matthias Reiß, “Die Schwarzen waren unsere Freunde”: Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in der amerikanischen Gesellschaft, 1942–1946 (Paderborn, Germany, 2002). 4 George G. Lewis and John Mewha, History of Prisoner of War Utilization by the United States Army, 1776–1945 (Washington, DC, 1955), 90–91. 5 W. Stanley Hoole, “Alabama’s World War II Prisoner of War Camps,” Alabama Review 20 (April 1967): 83–114; Ruth Cook, Guests Behind the Barbed Wire: German POWs in America, A True Story...


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