German prisoners of war, interned in Delaware, were a major factor in the state's agricultural efforts during the Second World War

By the middle of 1944, Delaware’s agricultural officials knew they were in trouble: with 33,000 men away fighting World War II, there wasn’t enough manpower to ensure the First State’s crops could be successfully harvested.

That was the problem.

German prisoners of war were the solution. Delaware wasn’t the only state where POWs were put to work to support the American war effort, but the need in the First State was acute. Delaware farms were actually overproducing: the government had ramped up food production during the war and the military draft, as well as higher wages offered in war production plants, had sapped the state’s labor pool. George M. Worrilow of the University of Delaware said the state would need up to 3,500 extra workers for the 1944 harvest. Plans included bringing in Boy Scouts, laborers from Jamaica and the Bahamas, local residents and German war prisoners.

Elmer Smith, acting director of the state’s Wartime Manpower Commission, said at the time the German soldiers, working voluntarily under the terms of the Geneva Conventions, would “go a long way toward solving the labor shortage in the food processing plants in the state.”

Contracted out to area farmers and manufacturers, the prisoners would be allowed to work no more than 12 hours a day for six days a week. The contractors would pay the government the prevailing wage for the prisoners’ labor.

Additional help needed

In May 1944, the U.S. Army set up a POW base camp at Fort DuPont near Delaware City, eventually establishing satellite camps near Lewes, Slaughter Beach, Georgetown, Harbeson and at the Kent and Sussex Fairgrounds, now the Delaware State Fair, in Harrington.

The 400 prisoners at that camp would work at canning plants in Wyoming and Houston, which packed staples such as corn, string beans, tomatoes, and peas.

“We can count on the people of Houston, Wyoming and the surrounding communities, many of whom have been loyal employees for over 20 years,” plant superintendent Willard J. Dufendach, said during a production award ceremony in Houston. “But increased production will demand additional help.”

That help would come, in part, from German prisoners, Dufendach said.

Incredible as it may seem, German prisoners also were put to work on American military installations, including Dover Army Airfield. The base was chronically undermanned and commanders could ill afford to take airmen possessing valuable skills and have them working in base mess halls or cutting grass.

Base officials received approval to use German POWs to relieve some of the manpower shortages. Beginning in October 1944, and under strict rules regarding the Geneva Conventions and with an eye toward maintaining security, the prisoners were put to work with housekeeping chores and kitchen duty.

Although lightly guarded, the prisoners were not allowed to fraternize with base personnel, and airmen were warned against socializing with them.

In 1986, retired U.S. Army Maj. George Russell Kates provided the Delaware Public Archives with a typewritten, 13-page memorandum of his service while assigned to prisoner of war camps in Delaware. Then a second lieutenant, in June 1944 Kates was assigned to the POW camp in Georgetown, which he found “in good condition, with most of the PW’s working in the canning factories in that area.”

Around April 1945, after a promotion to first lieutenant, Kates was reassigned to oversee the construction of a POW camp at the fairgrounds in Harrington. The camp was to house about 550 Austrian prisoners who had been contracted to work in the local Armour Company chicken processing plant. The camp included watch towers as well as fencing to keep the prisoners confined, he said.

Kates took over the fairgrounds’ two-story police headquarters, setting up a cot in a room upstairs for himself and administrative offices downstairs, one for the prisoners and another for the GIs. Sending a truck to the Dover Army Airfield, Kates got his hands on some mahogany paneling he ordered installed in the downstairs offices.

“It would be a nice room for the police after the return to the city of Harrington,” after the war, he noted.

Accompanied by a dog named Brownie who would ride in his jeep’s passenger seat, Kates often drove into town to obtain supplies for the camp.

“I was granted unlimited credit in any store in Harrington for any supplies or equipment needed and no questions asked,” he wrote. Over time, the prisoners also cleared land near the camp, planted flowers throughout the compound and raised a 28-foot-tall flagpole. If a prisoner took ill, a town doctor, under contract to the Army, would be called in. The Armour plant often provided enough chicken for meals for both the prisoners and the GIs at the camp, he said.

In his narrative, Kates also made a point of noting how the military had come under what he considered unfair criticism for allegedly coddling the prisoners. Newspaper columnists, including the famous Walter Winchell, had the wrong idea about why the prisoners were treated humanely, Kates argued.

The Army, Kates wrote, “was following to the letter government directives as to food, furnishing, and treatment,” in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

Going unmentioned was the fact the prisoners had helped the American war effort by providing labor that otherwise would have been left undone, for which they were paid about 90 cents an hour. He appended a clipping of a May 4, 1945, Philadelphia Inquirer article, “German Captives Live in Ease and Comfort;” the same issue included photos of prisoners in an unnamed Delaware camp, describing them as “healthy, well-fed Nazis.”

His work in building the camp complete, Kates was transferred back to Georgetown three months after his arrival, where he served as that camp’s executive officer.

6,500 prisoners in Delaware

Generally, German prisoners interned in the United States were well behaved and caused few problems for camp administrators. Research has shown this may have been in part because their leaders continued the type of discipline expected in the German military. There is evidence, however, based on reminiscences published after the war, that some of this discipline was based on intimidation and threats by those POWs who were more adherent to Nazi ideology than their fellow prisoners.

Although there was some initial nervousness to their presence in communities surrounding the camps, the POWs generally became more of a curiosity over time. There were scattered escape attempts, including one instance in August 1944 when four men jumped from a truck headed to a Millsboro chicken plant; all were recaptured within three hours.

Even though Germany had been defeated by May 1945, the army remained under pressure not to send the POWs back to Germany any time soon. Although the War Department had previously announced they would be sent home starting in February 1946 and that all would be repatriated by April, President Harry S. Truman, in January 1946, pushed both dates back by two months, “principally in order to meet a temporary labor problem in the production of sugar beets, cotton and pulpwood.”

At the time, an estimated 198,000 German POWs were in the United States; Japanese POWs were scheduled to be sent home by the end of January, with Italian prisoners, which numbered about 10,400, due to be repatriated around the end of January.

In February 1946, George Worrilow, who two years earlier had asked for prisoners to supplement the labor force, essentially seconded Truman’s thoughts when he said the outlook for civilian workers in Delaware remained uncertain; agricultural production still was on a wartime footing, and the estimated 700 German prisoners in the state still were needed.

By the time they were repatriated by June 1946, more than 6,500 German and Austrian POWs had been through the state. Lt. Col. John J. Harris, who had commanded the state’s Prisoner of War Unit, said the prisoners’ labor had brought about $2.4 million to the federal government.

Speaking in Congress after the end of the war, Delaware Sen. James Tunnell said farms in the First State could not have operated without the help of captured enemy soldiers.