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APSU professor Thompson researching history of World War II POWs in Tennessee

As thousands of American men traveled overseas to fight for the Allied forces during World War II, a surprising number of captured Axis prisoners of war (POWs) were making the opposite intercontinental journey.

A total of 425,000 Axis (Germany, Italy and Japan) POWs were held all across the United States in nearly every state. This marked the first time since the Civil War that large numbers of POWs were held on American soil.

As thousands of American men traveled overseas to fight for the Allied forces during World War II, a surprising number of captured Axis prisoners of war (POWs) were making the opposite intercontinental journey.

A total of 425,000 Axis (Germany, Italy and Japan) POWs were held all across the United States in nearly every state. This marked the first time since the Civil War that large numbers of POWs were held on American soil.

Austin Peay State University history professor Dr. Antonio Thompson has been studying POWs for over a decade.  His current research on the German POWs held in Tennessee has allowed him to travel the state visiting former camps, archives and conducting interviews.  While in Lawrenceburg, he learned about the discovery of hundreds of letters written after the war between former POWs and the farm family in Lawrenceburg that employed them. 

The sister-in-law of Curtis Peters, who is President of the Lawrence County Historical Society, found the letters while cleaning out an older home. Peters contacted Charlie McVey, German professor at Lipscomb University to translate the letters. 

“These letters are a significant find and contribution to the study of POWs. As they were written by the German POWs at the Lawrenceburg, Tennessee branch camp, which housed fewer than 400 men, they will provide a very good primary source and glimpse into that camp,” Thompson said. “The letters are also significant to the larger study as they provide more context to what was happening in the state and nation overall.” 

The discovery of the letters has sparked media frenzy. 

“The discovery of the letters happened at a good time as May 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender,” Thompson said. 

Thompson said he is looking forward to continued collaboration and furthering the study of POWs held by the United States, adding that the letters will be part of an ongoing research project collaboration and will be unveiled at Lipscomb University in the fall of 2015, where they will be housed.

The reasons why the U.S. agreed to house Axis POWs were varied, but Thompson said the decision was justifiably both strategically and legally.

“First, we must consider that the Geneva Convention stipulated that the POWs be housed and fed equivalent to that of the guards and that they be kept safe,” Thompson said. “In North Africa and later Europe, it was difficult to ship food, clothes, building and electrical supplies and other needed items as it not only cost money, but took up space on ships that needed to be used to support U.S. troops and our war effort.” 

“Also, housing prisoners in such a manner did not guarantee their safety as counter-attacks or aerial bombardments might still endanger them, not to mention there was an opportunity to escape and rejoin enemy lines,” Thompson continued.

The state of Tennessee housed several POW camps, with Camp Forrest (Tullahoma), Camp Crossville (Crossville) and the Memphis ASF Depot serving as main locations. Forrest was one of the largest camps in the U.S., housing over 20,000 POWs, while branch camps like Lawrenceburg and Tyson had less than 400 men.

Because of the large number of young men who left the U.S. to fight, POWs were seen as a solution to the problem of farming and construction labor shortages. Men transferred frequently from base camps to other base camps and branch camps, which were usually temporary work camps sited to benefit agricultural needs.

“U.S. officials agreed that the prisoners could provide their own labor to construct any new housing that was needed,” Thompson said. “It was also decided that prisoners would pay for their upkeep by providing labor to local agriculture. (POWs) would get paid the fair wage.  The prisoner kept a portion of this pay as canteen coupons and the remainder would go into the U.S. treasury.”

At the end of World War II, all of the captured POWs were required to return home. By agreement with the Allies, POWs had to return to their home countries and home areas, which often meant East Germany, Poland or the Soviet Union – all regions unfriendly to the now-defeated Axis forces. For men that went to the area occupied by Soviet forces, some were tortured, sent to work hard labor or executed.

Thompson said the Lawrenceburg letters described a lasting relationship between former POWs and the families for whom they worked during their internment. The writing contained within gives a new perspective on the lives of post-war Europeans.

“(The letters) were between the former POWs and the farm families, and were sent back and forth for a period of years after the war after the former prisoners were sent back home,” Thompson said. “Many of them describe the hardships of post-war Germany and Europe and the difficulty of getting clothes, shoes and food.”

“Many (former POWs) mention how good they were treated by the Americans,” Thompson added. “They were fed better than in the German military. Of course, they were treated far better than if they had been captured by the Soviet Union.”

Thompson is currently working on a book that studies the lives of German POWs held in Tennessee during World War II. Through his research, Thompson has visited the former camps and interviewed men involved on both sides of the conflict.

“I’ve been fortunate to interview many of the former German POWs and American veterans who captured or guarded Axis prisoners, as well as American farmers who employed them or others who encountered them,” Thompson said. “This summer, I traveled to Denmark, Germany and Austria to conduct research and get background information on some of the men I’ve interviewed.”

Thompson is a published World War II expert, having written a number of books on the subject, including “German Jackboots on Kentucky Bluegrass: Housing German Prisoners of War in Kentucky, 1942-1946,” and “Men in German Uniform: POWs in America during World War II.” Recently, Thompson and fellow APSU professor, Dr. Christos Frentzos, edited “The Routledge Handbook of American Military and Diplomatic History,” a two-volume military and historical chapbook.

For more information on these works, contact Dr. Antonio Thompson at thompsonas@apsu.edu.