In 1945, There Was a POW Camp in Rhinelander

Jun 19, 2019

Portrait of a man in World War II uniform, possibly Omar Crocker. Madison, 1945.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID: 42850, wisconsinhistory.org

This week's A Northwoods Moment in History comes from a question to our Curious North series.

Patty Fitzpatrick from Rhinelander recently asked: Is it true that there was a POW camp in Rhinelander during World War II?"

To answer Patty's question, here's Gary Entz for this week's A Northwoods Moment in History.

In the early years of World War II, German prisoners captured in battle were held in Great Britain.  However, in 1942 a rumor spread that Hitler planed on air dropping weapons to his soldiers held in British detention camps.  This led to the United States agreeing to take charge of prisoners, and in early 1944 German POWs began arriving in the U.S.  During the war, 425,000 German prisoners of war were housed in 700 camps spread across the entire United States.  Of that number, slightly more than 20,000 were placed in POW camps located in Wisconsin.  Wisconsin’s main POW facility was Camp McCoy, located in Monroe County.  However, there were another 36 branch camps spread out across the state, and one of those branch POW camps was Camp Rhinelander.

In 1945 a POW camp for German prisoners was established at a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp two miles west of Rhinelander.  Two patrol towers were constructed at the camp, and the camp commander was Major Elmer A. Ward.  It was guarded by 35 soldiers, all of whom were combat veterans in either the European or Pacific theaters.  There were roughly 90 prisoners held in the Rhinelander camp, most of whom were no older than 23.  The guards worked in shifts, with each watching over about 10 POWs at any given time.  The prisoners built a sports field on the site for recreation, but the main reason they were brought to Rhinelander was for labor.

"When this marker was dedicated, Highway 41 was designated the World War II Veteran's Memorial Highway."
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID: 94939, wisconsinhistory.org

By 1945 so many young men had been drafted to serve in the armed forces that there was a severe labor shortage across the United States.  With those still available to work being used in industry and manufacturing, the scarcity was felt most acutely in agriculture.  This was the reason for so many branch camps across Wisconsin.  The German POWs were used as agricultural laborers in areas that were at risk of losing crops.

Prisoners in the Rhinelander camp came in the late summer of 1945 to pick potatoes.  In Camp Rhinelander the prisoners were roused at 4:30 a.m.  They had a breakfast prepared by their own cooks after which they were loaded into trucks and driven out to area farms to work.  Northwoods farmers were given strict instructions on how to conduct themselves around the POWs which included prohibitions against fraternization and liquor.  The most important warning was that farmers were considered just as responsible as the guards and would be prosecuted accordingly should any POW escape.

Both Lutheran and Roman Catholic priests from Rhinelander visited the camp on Sundays to provide services, but no other civilian visitation was permitted.  No major incidents every occurred, and camp Rhinelander closed after the war ended.  Most German POWs were repatriated in 1946.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photos above are used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here and here.

Do you have a question about history in the Northwoods? Submit it to our Curious North series below.

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