World War II Prisoners of War in Iowa

War brings unwelcome change to many lives. Not only the soldiers who fight in the battles, but the people who live in the countries involved, are affected too. Many soldiers are killed or wounded during wartime. Some are captured and held as prisoners. During World War II many German, Italian and Japanese soldiers were captured by the Americans. Some of these prisoners of war were sent to Iowa to live in camps. Other people were forced to leave their homes for political reasons. Some of these people spent time in Iowa too.

Camps Bring Change

The two major prisoner of war camps in Iowa were in Clarinda and Algona. These locations were announced in August 1943. The first prisoners arrived in Clarinda on January 24, 1944. The Clarinda camp consisted of 293 acres. The Algona camp consisted of 287 acres. Each was built to house approximately 3,000 prisoners. Neither was filled to capacity.

The camps caused changes in the towns where they were built. New buildings were constructed for camp use. This provided employment for construction workers, who also had to be housed in the local communities. Both Clarinda and Algona had to add to their water, light, power, sewage and post office facilities to take care of the added population. Not only were the prisoners added to the population, there were 500 military guards at Clarinda and 160 guards at Algona. It was estimated before completion that each camp would cost at least $1 million.

Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners were guaranteed certain rights. Standards had to be met regarding hygiene, health care and food. The prisoners’ housing had to be as good as the housing for U.S. soldiers at the time. Religious services and recreational opportunities had to be made available to the prisoners.

Only prisoners who were at the rank of a private were required to work. But they couldn’t work in any place that supported the war effort. Prisoners were expected to work inside the camps as cooks or as maintenance workers. They could volunteer for outside duties. In Clarinda there was a 120-acre camp garden. Eighty acres were planted to potatoes. Authorities originally had intended that corn should be planted, but the prisoners did not want to eat corn. In Algona there was a 70-acre garden, but no particular crop was specified.

Mostly the prisoners were used in farm labor, but volunteers from both camps were used to sandbag levees of rivers when there were floods. Prisoners were paid at the rate of 80 cents per day, but they received it in “credit” only.

Many branch prisoner-of-war camps were established in other parts of Iowa, including Tabor, Shenandoah, Audubon, Charles City, Waverly, Eldora, Toledo, Clinton and Wapello. At these branch camps the prisoners built and repaired fences. They repaired machinery and outbuildings on farms. They also canned vegetables, processed hemp for use in rope making, dehydrated alfalfa and processed lumber. They helped detassel corn and harvest peas and other crops.

Iowa Communities and the Prisoners

In the Algona camp the prisoners formed their own orchestra, chorus and dramatics club. And under the leadership of one prisoner, Eduard Kaib, a massive nativity scene was constructed at Christmas time in 1945. It has been preserved in Algona and is still exhibited each Christmas. The prisoners paid for the materials from their 80 cents per day credits. They had more than $8,000! So impressed were the local people by this effort, that many years later—in 1968—they took up a collection to bring Eduard Kaib and his daughter back from Germany for a visit.

Most of the prisoners—both at Clarinda and Algona during the first year—were German soldiers. But by 1945 Italian soldiers had been brought to Clarinda. This posed problems because Italy had by that time entered the war on the side of the Allies. So the Italian prisoners were actually no longer enemies—as they had been at the beginning of the war when they were captured. Because of that, the army decided that they required less guarding and had more freedom. This caused the German prisoners to resent the Italian prisoners. Some of the local people resented the Italians too. They accused the Italian soldiers of going to movies, having drinking parties, and dating local girls. The local citizens believed that the Italians got more rationed items—like cigarettes—than the civilians in the area could get. About 400 of the Italians were assigned to work at the Rock Island Arsenal—a situation that seemed unusual since war materials were produced at the arsenal.

There was some uneasiness among the local residents in the communities where a base camp or a branch camp was located. People worried about escapes and the spread of diseases. Some people thought the prisoners had more luxuries than the average citizen.

There were two recorded escapes from Algona. The first time the men were picked up in a nearby town. The second time (same men involved) they didn’t even get out of the camp. They had hidden inside the camp waiting for a chance to escape but were found before they were able to get outside the camp.

German and Italian prisoners were treated better by the people in the communities than were the Japanese prisoners. In February 1945 a group of Japanese prisoners were brought to the Clarinda camp. They were not well treated by the guards or by their fellow German and Italian prisoners. One reason for this was stories of Japanese atrocities against U.S. troops had been reported recently in news reports. Although the same sort of atrocities had been committed by the Germans, they had been reported earlier in the war and were not as fresh in the minds of Iowans.

The Clarinda camp closed on December 1, 1945. The remaining prisoners were shipped to California and other places. The Algona camp closed in February 1946 when most of the German prisoners were shipped to Fort Crook, Nebraska. The nativity scene in Algona and the memories of local people are all that are left of the prisoner-of-war camp experiences in Iowa.


Written for Iowa Pathways by Loren Horton.