Members of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps arrived at Camps Evelyn and Sidnaw. Eventually approximately 1000 were held at 5 different POW Camps in the UP. Others were sent to camps in the lower peninsula.
The story of German prisoner of war camps in Michigan and across the nation is becoming more well-known, but was largely unheard of just a few years ago.
With Great Britain running out of room for POWs captured in North Africa and elsewhere, the U.S. reluctantly agreed to accept some. The prisoners were transported to America on return voyages of liberty ships that had carried U.S. troops to war in Europe.
German POWs arrived on the East Coast where they boarded trains to the interior of the country. Before being taken north to the Upper Peninsula on trains, the POWs were temporarily held in Illinois at two large camps that distributed POWs to several places in the Midwest.
Eventually, there would be roughly 375,000 German POWs held at more than 500 branch camps or 155 base camps across the United States, including five camps in the U.P. where the POWs were housed in barracks used during the previous decade for Civilian Conservation Corps workers.
The POWs performed various duties, depending on which region of the country they were held. In the U.P., prisoners worked to cut pulpwood, with paper being a vital material needed to support the war effort and there being a shortage of workers for local mills with much of the citizenry off to war.
During 1944, four of the POW camps — two in Alger County (AuTrain and Evelyn) and two in Houghton County (Sidnaw and Pori) — were established, with the fifth camp, in Chippewa County (Raco), set up in January 1945.
Each of the camps had an average of 220 POWs, two army officers and 38 enlisted men. Security was light with winter, POW unfamiliarity with local geography, remote nature of the region, mosquitoes and the inherent language barrier kept the POWs from escaping, or from getting too far in the limited number of escapes that did occur.
Beyond manned guard towers and a couple of strands of barbed wire, the camps were not fortified substantially.
Within these hardwoods in Alger County, along the North Country Trail, was once Camp AuTrain, established as a CCC Camp 3607 in July 1935 and re-opened as a POW camp in May 1944.
A former guard at the camp told stories of how the camp would help augment the menu in the mess hall by using a Thompson sub-machine gun to knock down stands of deer.
To protect the German POWs working in the woods during firearm deer hunting season, the soldiers would tie scraps of red cloth around the arms of the prisoners. The Germans apparently didn’t understand why this was being done and found it funny.
During a winter’s night after Christmastime, the guard said he was shocked to see a huge flame explode into the night sky from a chimney at the camp.
Sitting in the guard tower, he called other military personnel who told him someone had stuffed a Christmas tree into the fireplace, with the chimney caked with creosote, resulting in the nighttime fireball.
Army personnel didn’t know how the German POWs would react to being interned in America. In turn, they were concerned how the American public would react to German POWs in the area.
Camp guards were protecting the POWs as well as the public. American military and government officials wanted to treat the Germans well in hopes of Axis troops doing the same for American POWs overseas.
German POWs in some camps put on plays, sang in choirs, painted and drew pictures of pin-up girls and Hitler, carved musical instruments or other items out of wood and took a range of classes offered in the camps.
Many of the German POWs possessed a wide range of artistic talents. One POW at Camp AuTrain crafted a working cuckoo clock out of a cigar box. In a wide clearing, along the south edge of the camp, the POWs used to play soccer.
The German POW camps in the Upper Peninsula began to close in August 1945, with Camp Raco. Camps AuTrain, Sidnaw, Evelyn and Pori were all closed in April 1946.
During the 15 months German POWs worked for private contractors and government installations in Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, they performed labor valued at almost $9 million ($125 million in 2017 dollars).
POW labor in those three Midwest states reached its peak in August 1945 when nearly 15,000 POWs were working in over 25 communities out of 48 branch camps.
The remaining POW camp features are fading into the forests of the Upper Peninsula more and more each year.
List of German POW Camps in Michigan:
- Camp Allegan
- Camp AuTrain
- Barryton, Mecosta County, MI
- Benton Harbor, Berrien County, MI
- Blissfield, Lenawee County, MI
- Caro, Tuscola County, MI
- Coloma, Berrien County, MI
- Croswell, Sanilac County, MI
- Fort Custer, Galesburg, MI
- Dundee, Monroe County, MI
- Camp Evelyn – Alger County, MI
- Freeland, Saginaw County, MI
- Fremont, Newaygo County, MI
- Camp Germfask – Germfask, MI
- Grant, Newaygo County, MI
- Grosse Ile Township, Wayne County, MI
- Hart, Oceana County, MI
- Camp Lake Odessa, Ionia County, MI
- Mattawan, Van Buren County, MI
- Mass, Ontonagon County, MI
- Milan (USFR), Monroe and Washtenaw Counties, MI
- Odessa Lakes, Tuscola County, MI
- Camp Owosso – Shiawassee County
- Camp Pori – Upper Peninsula
- Camp Raco – Upper Peninsula near Sault Ste. Marie
- Romulus Army Air Field, Wayne County, MI
- Shelby, Oceana County, MI
- Camp Sidnaw – Sidnaw, MI
- Sparta, Kent County, MI
- Wayne (Fort), Detroit, Wayne County, MI
- Waterloo, Jackson County, MI
- Wetmore, Alger County, MI
The German POW camps of Michigan during WWII, All Things Michigan, August 25, 2009.
John Pepin, “German POWs were interned in Upper Peninsula“, Marquette Mining Journal, December 8, 2017.
Film available : The enemy in our midst : Nazi prisoner of war camps in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula / a film by Jackie Chandonnet & John Pepin. 1 DVD videodisc (2 hrs. 41 min.) : sd., col. ; 4 3/4 in. MSU Library Digital and Multimedia Center (4 West) D805.U5 E54 2011 VideoDVD