WWII Prison camps of Iowa

Iowa author Linda McCann paid a visit to St. Ansgar Tuesday to talk about one of her newest books, Prisoners of War in Iowa, treating listeners to fascinating World War 2 stories from around the state she’s picked up during her research.

“I grew up around Waverly,” McCann said. “All my life, I’d heard about these POW camps that used to be just outside of town.”


McCann said her granddaughter overheard a conversation about them one day, and asked “Why didn’t we learn about these in school?”.

McCann said that her granddaughter’s fascination with the stories is one of the reasons for her writing and research.

“These kids, they love these stories,” McCann said. “So we’ve got to tell them.”

McCann said she enjoys researching little-known aspects of Iowa history, writing about it and sharing it with others.

“You never know what stories you’re going to hear,” McCann said.

The subject of her newest book focuses on the surprisingly often-forgotten POW camps here in Iowa that housed German and Japanese troops during the Second World War.

The Second World War, which concluded 74 years ago, is to this day the biggest armed-conflict the world has ever seen.

The First and Second World wars were so massive in scale, they helped introduce a phenomenon that became known as “the home-front”.

Factories were converted  to produce military equipment, crops harvested were sent to the war effort — almost every citizen was called to do their part in some way.

Nels Goldberg said he remembers kids having to collect milkweed pods during school, so they could be used to make parachutes.

Essentially, the willingness of a country’s citizenry to pitch in and contribute to the war effort became a pivotal part of winning the war.

With the country’s manufacturing shifting into overdrive, McCann said, Iowa began to experience labor shortages right about the time when train-loads of captured prisoners were crossing the country after being shipped over from Europe.

Between the years 1943 and 1946, Iowa housed around 25,000 German, Italian and Japanese prisoners – with the biggest camps located in Clarinda and Algona.

Before long, smaller “branch camps” popped up around the state, where prisoners could essentially be sent to work for factories, farmers or places like hospitals.

The first German prisoners arrived in January of 1944, and McCann said that many Iowans were skeptical at the time of having these enemy soldiers in their midst.

McCann told a story of one Iowa farmer who had conscripted the help of a German POW to help with his harvest, and had to break the news to his wife — who was dead set against the idea.

When the farmer said he was hiring the German, the wife said ‘absolutely not’. The farmer then told his wife he needed the help, or he might not make it this year. The wife replied “Well, he’s not eating with us then.” To which the farmer said “We have to feed him, it’s the rules.”  The wife replied “Well, I’m not using my good china.”

McCann said that eventually people warmed up to the prisoners, and reminded the audience that many German soldiers were against Adolf Hitler and the war in the first place.

McCann told the story of one POW, who was doctor back in Germany who was forced into the service. He said the happiest day of his life was when he was captured by the Americans, because he knew he was going to make it through the war.

By and large, The POWs and Iowans got along well. The prisoners would pass candy bars to kids passing by, just so they would stop and have someone to practice their English with. Towards the end of the war and in some camps, POWs were allowed to visit families for Sunday dinner-without a guard.

Today, a small shelter in Eldora is the only building that remains of the POW camps in Iowa. However, a half-life sized nativity remains at the fairgrounds in Algona, which was crafted by some German soldiers during the war. 

Years later, the German who designed the nativity returned to Algona to visit and said “We arrived as enemies, but we left as friends.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.