- Nebraska pow Camps: A History of World War II Prisoners in the Heartland by Melissa Amateis Marsh
It is astonishing how few Americans today recall that during World War II the United States held some 400,000 captive German soldiers, 53,000 Italians, and 5,000 military Japanese prisoners of war in some 550 camps across America. Nebraska had its share, with three large camps of between 3,000 and 4,000 enemy captives (depending on transfers and new arrivals): Scottsbluff, Atlanta, and Fort Robinson, and more than a dozen small branch camps designed to bring pows close to their work sites. From early 1943 to late 1945 the pows worked to bring in America’s crops. They studied in classrooms, produced theater plays and concerts, squabbled among themselves, sometimes escaped, and learned about democracy through personal interaction with Nebraska’s farm families and work supervisors. The embrace of America by most prisoners depended largely on individual experiences or interactions. Many learned to love America’s Great Plains and, indeed, after their mandatory return to Europe following the war, an unknown number emigrated back to live.
Native Nebraskan Melissa Marsh explores every facet of the pow experience in the state, from their arrival by ship and trains from Camp Shanks, New York, to life and culture in the camps of Middle America. Marsh, a trained historian from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, has written a well-organized volume based on an impressive selection of available sources: interviews with participants, contemporary news accounts, diaries, letters, and other personal accounts. Recollections are often confirmed by military reports in the National Archives.
If there is a drawback to the work, it is the author’s contemporary optimism in describing the situation. Marsh acknowledges (114) that fascism ruled behind barbed wire, and that knives and tools were smuggled into Fort Robinson (102), yet we seem to meet only the [End Page 122] happy and cooperative prisoners. The book is written from a current perspective, and seldom reflects the anger and fear of a public battered by war news.
Importantly, Marsh underestimates the caustic effects of boredom on the pows’ allegiance to Germany, as well as their emotional vulnerability stemming from worry for the safety of their families in bombed German cities.
These minor points aside, Marsh has written an excellent book on a topic of interest to both American historians and military specialists. It describes a forgotten era in Nebraska’s past. This is local history at its very best.
Texas A&M University