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Enemies in the Bogs: German POWs in Wisconsin

Although cranberry farming is central to Wisconsin agriculture, one chapter of its history is perhaps less well-known: the presence of German POWs on the bogs during World War II. Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the United States’ entry into the war in late 1941, the War Department had already begun construction of camps to house enemy combatants.  By 1942, construction reached an accelerated pace. The camps would eventually house over 400,000 POWs, over 300,000 of them Germans or men from occupied German territories. image

German Prisoners of War raking cranberries on Wisconsin cranberry bogs, 1945 (Image ID S11137)

War Department rules and restrictions prevented the camps’ placement near war industry or points of potential escape such as coastlines. As a result, several rural towns in Wisconsin became home to thousands of unwanted guests. Major Joseph Westbrook directed over 30 POW camps in Wisconsin, supplying POW laborers to over 100 different communities for farm work. Farmers were required to pay POW laborers, however at a reduced rate of about 80% of normal wages.


Major Joseph A. Westbrook, head of Prisoner of War Relations for the Sixth Service Command (Image ID S11135)

In some cases, the presence of POWs alarmed and angered local residents. In Reedsburg, newspaper editorial pages debated whether to condemn German prisoners as Nazis or to consider them victims of their government. The War Department itself attempted to distinguish between rank-and-file soldiers and “true” Nazis, reserving Camp Alva in Oklahoma for avowed Nazi sympathizers and POWs who caused trouble in other camps  (Source: Antonio Thompson, Men in German Uniform, 2010). In Wisconsin, Camp McCoy held the greatest number of prisoners, both Japanese and German. Check out this document from UW Digital Collections that details “reeducation” efforts within the camp. 

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Posted by Jillian Slaight for UW Archives.

Filed under wihistory cranberry WWII POWs German Reedsburg Wisconsin history