American Prisoner of War Camps in Southern California
by Kathy Kirkpatrick, Arcadia Publishing
by arrangement with Fonthill Media LLC.,
Two books reviewed by Craig MacDonald
During World War II, nearly 37,000 German, Italian & Japanese Prisoners of War were housed in a total of 110 California POW camps and hospitals—59 in the North & 51 in the South.
Nationwide, more than 428,000 POWs were in Continental US camps. Every state, except Vermont, had them. The numbers of POWs varied due to re-locations, deaths and other factors.
Many California counties had camps, such as San Francisco, San Joaquin, Yuba, Butte, Alameda, Placer & Monterey in the North and Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego in the South.
"America is a nation of immigrants, so hosting POWs from their homeland brought mixed feelings among civilians and military in the communities where the prisoners were housed and worked," wrote Historian Kathy Kirkpatrick, author of two fascinating books, which tell the American POW story from a national and state perspective.
"People gradually came to appreciate the additional civilian jobs and affordable labor source. Some developed lifetime relationships and even later became married," wrote the noted genealogist, who graduated with a History Degree from Humboldt State University.
After the war, many returned to the United States for reunions near their old POW camps, some as late as 2009! Former POWs sometimes became US citizens.
This book is remarkable because of the author's extensive research on a topic many have never read about. She explains how POWs were treated; what they did here; the way they lived and what became of them.
"After the war, the former POWs held mostly good memories of their time here," writes the author, who utilized interviews with POWs, guards, translators and their families as well as located numerous, letters, camp newsletters, photos, maps and other fascinating items, which help document her works.
The historian explains how German & Italian Americans were given permission to hire POWs to work on their farms, in their canneries and at other businesses. They were paid for their services and provided valuable labor at a time when most young men were in the military.
The POWs worked producing much-needed products, like food, cotton, clothing and lumber. They repaired roads, railroad tracks and locomotives, airfields and other necessary infrastructure. They even provided bands for the camps as well as outside local churches (where they sometimes met girls). Some tried to escape. At Ft. Ord in Monterey County, 500 German POWs attempted to escape through tunnels in August of 1944.
In California, the majority of prisoners were Germans (a maximum 10,500 in the North and 13,288 in the South). The state also had 3,000 Italians in the North and 5,504 in the South; 3,500 Japanese in the North and 1,087 in the South.
The POWs were not only sent to these camps by US forces but other allies as well, including the British & French.
Ships carrying supplies and men overseas, transported POWs to America.
After Benito Mussolini's demise, the Italian government's position in the war changed from Axis to Ally, making a difference for many Italian POWs.
Sixty-five percent of the POWs signed up to serve in Italian Service Units, under command of Brig. Gen. J.M. Eager. They were separated from those who did not sign up. The service units provided labor similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps—receiving pay and special privileges.
The MacArthur Camp in San Pedro had 177 Italian Service Unit members.
American POW camps usually had 8 companies of 250 men each per compound. They were fed food equivalent to the American Servicemen but substitutions were made to recognize ethnic preferences, like Italians receiving an increase in rice and spaghetti and Germans getting more potatoes. POWs served as their own cooks. They played sports in their camps and could send two letters and one postcard a week with free postage.
Knight Camp in Oakland, Alameda County, which became the Oakland Army Base, once housed 824 German POWs. Garden Grove ended up with 600 Germans and the Santa Ana Air Base had 888 Germans.
Readers can find out a lot more fascinating information about where the German, Italian and Japanese POWs were located and many interesting things in these well-documented books, whose bibliographies will enable you to research further about ancestors, friends and others.
The author even has a Death Index, Burial Locations List, Museums & Website Roster and Indexes to further assist you in your search. Historian Kirkpatrick is to be commended for her tireless effort to bring history "alive" and preserve it for future generations.