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APSU professor explores Kentucky’s WWII POW camps in new book

By: Ethan Steinquest May 22, 2024


Dr. Antonio Thompson. | Photo by Sean McCully

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. - Dr. Antonio Thompson, professor of history at Austin Peay State University (APSU), has devoted decades of research to exploring how the United States’ prisoner-of-war program helped defeat the Axis powers during World War II.

His latest book, “Axis Prisoners of War in Kentucky: Behind Barbed Wire in the Bluegrass State, 1941-1946,” draws on personal stories from former prisoners, guards and local Kentuckians to highlight the complex social dynamics within POW camps and how their work supported the state’s tobacco industry.

“This program wasn’t cheap, and it wasn’t perfect,” Thompson said. “It was a difficult and dangerous time, but we went above and beyond to follow our Geneva Convention agreements and treat prisoners with humanity - even when what was happening [during the war] wasn’t very humane.”

Sustaining Kentucky’s wartime tobacco harvest

Kentucky housed approximately 10,000 POWs during World War II in camps like Campbell, Breckinridge and Knox. They were primarily sent to work the state’s tobacco and corn crops, but it took several months for the program to take shape.

“At one point, Kentucky was threatened by the 5th Service Command [which oversaw Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia] to have all their POWs relocated because Indiana was theoretically utilizing prisoner labor better,” he said. “This became a major factor in how Kentuckians, both the state’s farmers and military personnel, wanted to execute the prisoner labor program.”

By 1944, POW labor was fully utilized across the state, with prisoners being trucked to outlying counties. They worked five to six days a week and were paid in coupons they could use back at camp.

“Some Kentucky politicians argued that prisoners saved their tobacco crop,” Thompson said. “It’s a major part of the agriculture of that state, and when you go back into the World War II era when we’re just coming out of the Great Depression and sending people overseas in uniform, you’ll see that we don’t have enough manpower in agriculture.”

Thompson spoke to one farmer, Myron Poole, who had POWs working tobacco and corn on his farm in Todd County. Poole said they were good workers but had to overcome some cultural barriers.

“When you’re in a tobacco barn hanging the crop, you have to climb up the tiers and balance with your legs,” Thompson said. “The tobacco sticks come up, and you reach down and hand them to the person above you. It can be scary if you aren’t used to it. They didn’t cut tobacco in Germany, so the POWs would take their belts off and tie themselves to the tier for balance. But it’s a two-handed job, and they couldn’t effectively hold their belt for safety and grab a stick of tobacco with one hand - that was a real struggle.”

Some prisoners and farmers also built friendships that lasted beyond the war. The Broadbent family in Trigg County hired 20 Austrian POWs and quickly welcomed them into their home.

“They took those prisoners to church services, had them over for a Christmas meal, played music, sang carols and exchanged presents,” Thompson said. “Their relationship was so good that after the war, they stayed in touch, and their letters have survived over the years.”

Leisure activities in POW camps

Other POWs worked on the military bases where they were held, maintaining prisoner labor during agricultural off-seasons. They put in long hours but had plenty of recreational opportunities under the Geneva Conventions.

“On their off time, they had soccer and boxing tournaments,” Thompson said. “They created orchestras and plays using donated instruments and theatre props from the Red Cross, or they’d use their coupons to buy a drum kit or a piano. They could even buy movies and tend their own gardens.”

Thompson said the prisoners were also well-fed with calorie-rich meals and delicacies like peanut butter, then unfamiliar to Germans. This included large Thanksgiving and Christmas Day meals, and it wasn’t uncommon for POWs to gain weight at the camps because active-duty German soldiers averaged 1,500 calories a day.

“Contrast that with the American culture where we’re rationing gas, rubber and food, and there are certain items that American people can’t get,” he said. “You have a recipe there for an unhappy American civilian populace because, like them or not, these are prisoners of war because they’re the enemy. At one point, they were fighting against the Americans, and that’s largely how they came to be captured.”

This treatment of POWs did have a hidden benefit for the United States. Prisoners were encouraged to send letters home, and they often talked about their leisure activities.

“When they write letters home that say things like ‘I’ve gained 20 pounds as a prisoner, I read a book this weekend, I’m on a soccer team and we watched a movie last night’ … it makes it look like if you’re a prisoner of the Americans, you’ve got it made,” Thompson said. “The quickest way to do that is to surrender, and then you’re thinking, ‘I get to go to some camp in the middle of the United States and eat peanut butter.’”

These stories spread to active-duty soldiers through their families, and Thompson said conditions in American POW camps likely lessened the Axis’s will to fight.

“I think that becomes increasingly important as the war drags on and the Germans are losing,” Thompson said. “They’re trying to find manpower wherever they can get it. As that happens, the core, elite Nazified group of soldiers are dying, being captured and being replaced with people who are less fervent, and I think it makes an impact there.”

Conflict and compassion within POW camps

However, the number of Nazi soldiers in the camps created conflict between the POWs. Thompson said those who cooperated with Americans risked being attacked by fellow prisoners.

“Sometimes, they would have a German noncommissioned officer in the group, and even though they were prisoners, they were still in the German military,” he said. “If your officer tells you to do something, you’re generally going to follow orders.”

Those factors made it difficult to organize labor, even when guards threatened POWs with punishments like solitary confinement or a bread and water diet.

“In one case, a group of 10 POWs agreed to work and went out to Trenton,” Thompson said. “When they got there, they sat down and refused to work, and the guard said the NCO was communicating in German. Our guards largely didn’t speak German, and they couldn’t get them to cooperate, so they made them march all the way back to Camp Campbell from Trenton.”

However, there were instances of guards showing quiet compassion to prisoners inside and outside the camps.

“On some farms, the family would give the POWs extras like cigarettes and ice cream or let them swim in the pond,” Thompson said. “The guards were supposed to say ‘you can’t do that,’ but these things were often interpreted loosely … prisoners would also sometimes borrow a projector from the guards so they could have a movie night.”

Despite the wartime tensions, Thompson said the larger story of Kentucky’s POW camps reflects the strength of humanity during challenging moments.

“Wars end, but humanity continues - and I think that’s part of the whole story here,” Thompson said. “The American government realized we didn’t want to be permanent enemies, and you see that at the top level in policies. But you also see it playing out on a smaller level with relationships and friendships that lasted for decades, and it’s a very unique, wonderful story.”