From 1942 to 1946 more than 440,000 German, Italian, and Japanese prisoners of war were interned in camps in the United States, including about 20,000 German and Italian prisoners who were held in Mississippi. These prisoners had been captured in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Western Europe. Most were part of field marshal Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps.
Mississippi had four base or main prisoner of war camps: Camp Clinton (Clinton), Camp Como (Como), Camp McCain (Grenada), and Camp Shelby (Hattiesburg). Base camps were typically constructed to hold 3,000 prisoners, with the men segregated by fences into compounds of 1,000 men each. Within the compound, the buildings were arranged into four companies of 250 men each. The company was made up of five barrack buildings of 50 men each, a mess hall, a latrine, and a company administration building. The compound also contained an infirmary, a canteen, a recreation building, a workshop, and an administration building. Most camp buildings were of temporary design, assembled on-site with prefabricated sections.
In March 1943 the War Department announced that prisoners of war would be made available for work in regions suffering from a shortage of labor, but not until the fall of that year did the War Department and other government interests finalize the details for contracting out prisoners. However, concerns about escapes and possible sabotage hindered the use of the prisoners and the construction of new camps. Since base camps were not always located where prisoners were needed, smaller branch camps of between 250 and 1,000 men had to be established in project areas. The War Department constructed these branch camps with less elaborate security features and with simplified housing. Branch camps were erected at eighteen locations in Mississippi between June 1943 and the second half of 1944.
A number of the branch camps were erected on the sites of abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camps, making use of existing buildings. Others were “tent cities.” Barbed wire fences, floodlights, and perhaps a few watchtowers were placed around the perimeters. Most of the branch camps were located in the Mississippi Delta, where the prisoners primarily grew and harvested cotton. In the Piney Woods region, prisoners worked in the lumber and pulpwood industries. The single greatest use of prisoner labor, however, took place at Camp Clinton. Under construction adjacent to the camp was a vast scale model of the Mississippi River Basin covering some two hundred acres. More than 1,500 prisoners helped clear the land, lay the road network and drainage system, and move tons of earth to recontour the terrain. Their work, valued at several million dollars, allowed the US Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with and complete its flood-control project. In the decades after the Basin Model’s completion, data collected during tests helped save billions of dollars in property damage.
Camp Clinton was also where the highest-ranking German officers were confined. Thirty-five generals and one admiral were held in a special compound constructed specifically for them. The highest-ranking German general at Clinton was Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, who commanded all Axis forces in North Africa after Rommel’s departure. One of the lesser-known but more noteworthy generals was Dietrich von Choltitz, whom Adolf Hitler had ordered to burn Paris rather than let it fall into Allied hands.
Government plans called for the repatriation of German prisoners of war to begin in July 1945. However, because of the ongoing war with Japan and a continued shortage of civilian labor, the prisoners could not be released in the numbers desired. Most of those who were repatriated were officers and noncommissioned officers not required to work, men considered troublesome, the sick and insane, and those who had been particularly cooperative with authorities.
In September 1945, following the Japanese surrender, the War Department announced that there was no longer a need to retain the prisoners of war. However, employers from all over the country, backed by local and state officials, argued that unfilled contracts and unharvested crops would cause great financial loss without sufficient labor to replace the prisoner-workers. Consequently, Pres. Harry S. Truman declared that prisoners would be withdrawn from labor starting in April 1946 and sent home by the end of June. The last twenty or so of Mississippi’s prisoner of war camps closed in March and April 1946.
In 2004 Mississippi author Steve Yarbrough published the novel Prisoners of War, based on the Mississippi Delta POW camps.
- George G. Lewis and John Mewah, History of Prisoner of War Utilization by the United States Army: 1776–1945 (1955)
- Merrill R. Prichett and William L. Shea, Journal of Mississippi History (November 1979)
- Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- Records of the Provost Marshal General’s Office, RG 389, Modern Military Branch, National Archives; Waterways Experiment Station Archives, Vicksburg