German prisoners of war eased labor shortage in Minnesota

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The efforts of these prisoners, some of whom were themselves farmers in Germany, were necessary to alleviate Minnesota’s severe labor shortage in 1944-45.

During the last two years of World War II, German prisoners of war housed in camps at Whitewater State Park and near Owatonna and Faribault – in fact in camps across Minnesota – were an integral and generally welcome part of the rural Minnesota workforce.

They were sometimes less than welcome in communities where unions sought to protect the jobs of their members. Or, in some places, men were viewed with suspicion purely on the basis of their reputation and perception.

In Rochester, for example, officials at Saint Marys Hospital reportedly asked if German prisoners of war worked in the hospital laundry. The request was not met with enthusiasm by local 515 state, county and city workers, according to a study by Edward J. Pluth, published in 1975 in Minnesota History magazine. The union said using the prisoners “would not add to the prestige of the community.”

Whether or not this union resistance was a factor, the camp administrators never approved the proposal. Transporting prisoners to work in the hospital was supposed to be a problem. But, as Pluth pointed out, in July 1945 the prisoners were transported without incident daily from the Whitewater camp to work at the Reid factory, Murdock Canning Co. in Rochester.

Anyway, until 1945, even after the end of the war in Europe with the surrender of Germany on May 8, the army officers who ran the prison camps were unable to respond to demands. labor demands in Minnesota’s lumber and agriculture industries.

With the difficulty of moving large numbers of men across the Atlantic Ocean, prisoners of war were not immediately returned to their home countries after the war ended. And, as a July 1945 Post-Bulletin article noted, those soldiers who came from parts of Germany that were now under Soviet control were in no rush to return.

The men of Germany and its former ally, Italy, held in camps in the Midwest had been captured on the battlefields of Europe and North Africa. The United States began accepting prisoners of war held by Britain in 1942, and eventually 400,000 men were housed in prison camps across the country.

Prisoners in southern Minnesota, who sometimes worked up to 12 hours a day, were paid in coupons that could be used to purchase items at the camp store. Whitewater camp, a former Civilian Conservation Corps facility, was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. But there was no escape attempt, according to the Post-Bulletin.

As the war drew to a close, Captain Jack. I. Elson, commander of the Whitewater camp, told the Post-Bulletin: “There was no demonstration here on Victory Day, only tension among the prisoners.

For most of them, the war was long over.

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.


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