Prisoners of War in Colorado, a Lecture

Dr. Janet Worrall

Dr. Janet Worrall
February 1995
Introduction by Dr. Robert H. Pike
Fort Collins Historical Society Program

Robert Pike introduced the speaker by telling of his experience as a junior high student, working at the Kuner pea canning facility in Loveland. POWs were working there and Pike got to talk with them. "We'd ask them where Hitler was; some of them would bristle and others would laugh and joke with us."

Pike had recently talked with Harold Stroh who worked dispatching the prisoners in groups of twenty to farms around the area. Farmers could apply through the extension service to have these workers. Pike's twin brother picked up the prisoners every morning at 6:00 AM took them to the farms where they had been assigned, then picked them back up at 5:30 PM. An armed guard, who was always a combat veteran, guarded the prisoners, although Pike reported that 99% were "good kids."

Dr. Worrall: Still visible today are cement posts in a corn field on Highway 34 as one drives toward Greeley on the business road. This is all that remains of the POW camp that was there from l944 to l945. It was taken down in 1946.

The camp consisted of about 180 buildings with a twelve-foot fence enclosing them. There were twelve watch towers with spotlights; around the perimeter men with guard dogs patrolled. Inside were about 3,000 prisoners, all part of the larger question during the war of what to do with the three million enemy soldiers who'd been captured.

In 1942 Britain virtually begged the U.S. to take some prisoners. Australia took about 18,000 and Canada took a large number also. Eventually the U.S. agreed to take around 425,000. Of these 50,000 were Italian and about 375,000 German.

In this area it is interesting that the German prisoners came in contact with the Germans from Russia, or the Volga Germans. The first POWs came to the camp, which became known as Camp 202. It was one of 155 large camps throughout the U.S. There were also about 511 branch camps as were located in Ft. Collins, Eaton and Ault and other places in Colorado.

In Colorado there were three large camps. Greeley held 3,000 POWs; Trinidad 2,500; and the largest was Camp Carson at Colorado Springs, housing 12,000. The Camp Carson facility supplied the prisoners that worked in the fields out of Ault and Eaton; I don't know why, but that was how it was done. The Ft. Collins POWs came from the Greeley camp.

Virtually every site in the state, where there was a need for men to work in agriculture, had a branch camp; 48 branches in all, including Windsor, Eaton, Johnstown, Brush, and Fort Morgan. All of these communities utilized various buildings to house prisoners during the planting and harvest seasons. The Great Western Sugar Company had built dormitories during the early 1900s and these were used. In Ault, the high school gymnasium was used; in Gould, a former CCC Camp; and in Brush, the National Guard Armory was used.

There were rules governing the treatment of prisoners from the Geneva Convention of 1929 and our government followed that carefully. Although there were arguments from time to time about interpretation, this agreement was the "Bible" that was followed and prisoners were not abused.

What would it be like if you were a POW? You'd come by ship from the East Coast where you were processed and then sent directly to Greeley. In camp, every effort was made to accommodate the prisoners, sometimes to the annoyance of the neighbors. The Convention required certain things such as entertainment, so movies were shown regularly. The Germans favored westerns. A variety of classes were taught, including German, English and math. Books were available through libraries. Colorado Teachers College, now UNC, provided materials for the prisoners as did other schools. They could also take correspondence courses through either CU or the University of Minnesota, which accepted work in German.

The POWs got involved in sports. They played some of the Greeley teams in soccer and baseball. When the POWs would enter the field in Greeley, the gates would be closed; and nobody could enter or leave until the game was over. If people were on time, they would go inside and watch. There was a lot of interest.

Food: every effort was made to accommodate particular interests. You can guess their favorite food would be the potato. The Germans were supplied with food; they did their own cooking. They seemed to use more sugar than expected. Someone said they took the sugar and hid it under the floor boards, feeling this was a small thing they could do to help their cause in the war - by keeping it from being used for candy bars and whatever for the Allies. They used lard and put huge quantities on their dark bread. They'd put lard in their soup. they refused to eat corn. "How can you eat corn on the cob? That's for the horse and the cow!"

The POWs created their own diversions and entertainment. They sang a lot. Within just a few months they had many different singing groups and theater companies organized. Their programs would be presented to branch camps.

The YWCA provided the sports equipment and musical instruments. The camps were regularly visited by the WMCA and the Red Cross. Reports of these visits are on file in the National Archives. One of the Red Cross representatives said that Greeley was the only camp he had visited where there weren't any complaints. It had a good reputation and the men there were apparently well satisfied. The men had the opportunity to speak with the Red Cross inspectors in private. They were a watch-cap on how closely we followed the Geneva Convention. A 150 bed hospital took care of their medical needs.

A frequent question is "How strong was the Nazi sentiment in these camps?" In the Greeley camps, there seems to have been a certain group that was pro-Nazi but not in a really strident, aggressive way. In other U.S. camps various sad events took place. If anybody showed any sympathy at all to the Allies, there were several cases of men being killed in the barracks by the pro-Nazi men. There were a number of questionable suicides. This side of the POW issue was not part of the Greeley scene.

In Greeley, through education there was an effort to try to democratize the Germans. This took on a kind of national tone in the early l940s thanks to Eleanor Roosevelt. She took an active role in saying that we must try to educate these people in democracy. The Geneva convention said you can't propagandize, but in a classroom there are ways you can get your point across in a subtle manner and this was done. At one point though some people let it get out of hand. Some films were shown portraying Mussolini and Hitler as virtual animals, and some of the POWs got very angry and threw some chairs against the wall. The people in the camp knew they'd overstepped their bounds.

The POWs could volunteer to work and many did to get away from the boredom of the camp. All men in the camp received ten cents a day to buy toothpaste and such in the camp store. If you volunteered to work, you received eighty cents additionally. The stores in the POW camp sold cigarettes and candy bars and there was some resentment from the civilians toward that, "Why should they be able to buy that when the rest of us are suffering or rationing?"

Farmers didn't pay the prisoners directly. Farmers paid a going wage rate and the difference went to the government and eventually helped maintain the camps.

The main reason for the camps was to provide agricultural workers since the local men went to munitions factories or overseas to fight. Generally they worked in the beet fields and harvested vegetables and hay. The farmers went and got their men early in the morning and took them back at night.

Some of the men developed loyalty to certain farmers. Lena and Henry Shalthower used a lot of POW labor. Usually it worked out so they could get the same POWs. Ruth Lynd who has the Eaton Place in Eaton married a displaced person who worked for her father after the war. Her family used POW workers and she had wonderful stories to tell. Ruth's mother did wonderful cooking for them, because when they were picked up they had only dried bread and a piece of sausage in their brown bags. A lot of these farmers such as the Deets and the Lynds had a genuine concern for the German POWs; in part because they were of German background themselves. The farmers weren't supposed to converse with the prisoners but they could speak German and did. Some of the guards just ignored the issue of the extra food and the talk. Others tended to be more careful. The Deets would have the people eat in the cellar-way and if the guards came, they'd quickly disperse. The Lynds didn't care. They set up these long tables and all ate together, even the guards.

The guards were mostly rather casual about their duties, sometimes riding in the back of the truck with the men, even throwing his gun up to the men while climbing up. There wasn't any great fear that these prisoners were dangerous.

Some of the area newspapers took exception to the kind treatment of the POWs because, after all, they were the enemy. There was a feeling among many that the men were being "coddled." Yet those who really knew the young men and worked with them had nothing but compassion for them. There seemed to be the feeling that if we take care of the German POWs, our men that are POWs over there will be treated well. Then we found out in late 1944 or early 1943 that was not happening at all. Our men were being treated very poorly. The kind of food the POWs got in our camp declined. We met the Geneva Convention rules; but there were no favors.

The farmers all had instructions when they used POW labor. One of the first things mentioned was that if the farmer had trouble with the prisoners, he was to report it immediately to the camp commander or his representative by calling and asking him to come out. Problems were not to be discussed on the phone because most farmers were on party lines. Nor were they to permit newspaper reporters to gather information. The rules state in caps, "DON'T EVER BELIEVE A PRISONER OF WAR LIKES YOU. HE DOESN'T!...DONT BELIEVE THAT A PRISON OF WAR LIKES TO WORK FOR YOU. HE WORKS BECAUSE HE IS ORDERED TO WORK."

Although many of the rules about fraternizing with the prisoners were broken, one rule that was maintained was to not allow any women in any field where there were prisoners of war. As far as I know, women never went out into the field where there were POWs; nor were POWs ever let inside of the home.

There are funny stories, like the prisoner who met his first snake and ran away screaming. His fellow prisoners had to calm him down for fear it would be thought he was trying to escape. Escape was really not an issue as there was no place to go. From time to time men did try to escape, but it seems to have been from boredom. Some in Brush went down the road, stopped at the bar, had some beer and went back to camp. A less fortunate man was shot and killed trying to get back into camp. In Gould two men tried to escape from the camp in winter and were heading toward Cameron Pass. They broke into a house and found a liquor cabinet. Eventually they were caught, put in a wagon and brought back to Gould. It was a cold ride back, facing a diet of bread and water for seven days.

While many of the POWs were used in this area, others were sent farther away. Some were sent up in the mountains to cut telephone poles and railroad ties; others to cut ice for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad refrigerator cars, with the people who were being trained for the ski corps at Camp Hale.

In January of 1945 Camp 202 was closed down. The buildings were sold at auction. UNC used several as "temporary" housing for married students, which lasted till the mid 1970s. One building in Windsor is used as the VFW hall. Eventually the Camp 202 land was sold back to the Abbott family, who had originally owned the land. No mater how hard the prisoners begged, they could not stay. The very last ones went back in 1946.

Did they all go back? For a time there were twelve still out there. Eventually all were accounted for but one. By 1964, there was one unaccounted for. His name was George Giertner who did not want to go back to Russia; he took off, hid under a false name, and worked minimum wage jobs so he would never leave a paper trail. He got married in 1964 and kept his secret from his wife. Finally in l985 when his conscience could no longer stand it, he turned himself in. He was allowed to become a citizen, having been married to one for 21 years.

The prisoners got mail from home, but were limited to how much they could send out. After the war, the POWs wrote back from Germany, saying things were really grim. Some of the ties continued; from this side cigarettes and candy bars were sent, and gifts were received in exchange. In one case one family went and visited the POW back in Germany. A lot of POWs have come back here to visit and some have settled here.

Had the prisoners been of another ethnic group, I don't know if they would have been treated as well; but the German people in this area felt very sorry for these young men being caught in a situation over which they had no control. There is this real compassion for them, for they could imagine their sons being trapped in this situation.

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