New light shed on Minnesota’s POW camps

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 1999

One of the most unusual events in Minnesota history took place from 1943 to 1946 and involved several thousand Italian and German Prisoners of War.

Friday, September 17, 1999

One of the most unusual events in Minnesota history took place from 1943 to 1946 and involved several thousand Italian and German Prisoners of War. And this aspect of the World War II era even included Freeborn, Faribault and Steele counties.

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Not long ago someone asked me about a temporary camp for German POWs at Wells sometime during the World War II years. At the time, I was unable to really provide much information about the Wells camp. However, I have written several Tribune articles, with photos, about the POW camp near Hollandale. Yet, there were still a few missing details about the former German troops who helped to harvest the crops near Hollandale in 1944 and again in 1945.

Now, a book I happened to find at the Albert Lea Public Library has provided a very concise history about this aspect of our state’s life. The book is &uot;Behind Barbed Wire&uot; by Anita Albrecht Buck of Stillwater. It was published in 1998 by North Star Press of St. Cloud.

As I read this book, there came a realization that the Tribune, the Ahlahasa student newspaper, and the Reynen and Hamer families of the Hollandale area had contributed a portion of the research material used by Mrs. Buck. In fact, I recall talking with this author on the telephone a few years ago and sending her an article or two I had written about one of the Hollandale POWs.

The Italian and German POWs sent to Minnesota were used to solve a serious labor problem. There was a a lack of farm and timber workers because of the wartime conditions created by so many young Americans being in the military services or employed in defense-related industries.

As a result, the POWs were used to help with the harvesting and processing of crops such as sweet corn, peas, potatoes and sugar beets. Some POWs were sent to the northern part of the state to work in the timber cutting and pulpwood operations. By 1945, the former German and Italian troops has worked in 24 of the state’s counties.

The first group of POWs to arrive in Minnesota consisted of 100 Italians and 40 U. S. Army guards. They came from a camp in Missouri during the fall of 1943 and were sent to Princeton to harvest potatoes. A short time later, another 100 Italian POWs went to Olivia to harvest seed corn. When these two assignments were completed, the Italians went back to the camp in Missouri.

At the end of 1943 a large POW camp was established at Algona, Iowa. This became the command center for the German POWs in Minnesota for the rest of World War II. Some support functions, such as medical services and supplies, came from Fort Snelling.

Mrs. Buck’s research shows that Algona had 15 branch camps in Minnesota during 1944 and 1945. All these camps were temporary operations. Some were located in former Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) barracks, several used fairgrounds buildings or migrant housing, and others were based on tents behind barbed wire fences. During those two years the POWs were shifted from camp to camp as needed to solve labor shortages.

The 15 branch camps, according to the chapter listings in this book, were located in or near Moorhead, Fairmont, Remer, Bena, Owatonna, Deer River (Cut Foot Sioux), New Ulm (Flandreau State Park), Montgomery, Faribault, St. Charles (Whitewater State Park), Ortonville, Howard Lake, Bird Island, Hollandale and Wells. Three of these camps, Owatonna, Fairmont and New Ulm, were used for POWs during the winter of 1944-45. The other camps were closed down and the POWs sent back to Algona.

Branch Camp No. 14 at Wells had a very short existence. It was started in June 1945, after the end of World War II in Europe. This camp had about 250 Germans who lived in the former hemp plant building. These POWS worked with the pea and corn canning plants in Wells and Fairmont, plus some harvest work for area farmers. By late fall the Wells camp closed.

This book also lists Ada, Crookston, and Warren as temporary sites for POWS who were sent to the Red River Valley to help with the harvests in the fall of 1945.

In the next column we’ll concentrate on POW Branch Camp No. 16 at Hollandale.