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Germans have a long history of contributing to Minnesota agriculture — including as prisoners of war

During the later years of World War II, many rural areas experienced a severe labor shortage. To help ease the pressure, the federal government shipped prisoners of war to the U.S. to work as laborers. 

German prisoners of war outside a farm building in Moorhead, ca. 1944–1945. Used with the permission of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.
Courtesy of the Florence Drury collection, Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County

During World War II, prisoners of war helped relieve a severe labor shortage in many rural areas of the U.S. In Clay County, Minnesota, POWs worked on farms to plant, tend, and harvest the crops that otherwise might have been lost.

During the later years of World War II, many rural areas experienced a severe labor shortage after local young men joined the war effort. To help ease the pressure, the federal government shipped prisoners of war (POWs) to the United States to work as laborers. One of the major POW camps was in Algona, Iowa. From April 1944 to August 1946, Camp Algona was home to over 10,000 German POWs, most of whom were enlisted men who had surrendered to allied forces in Africa and Italy. They worked at branch camps throughout Minnesota and Iowa until the end of the war.

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From the base at Camp Algona, POWs were distributed to communities that requested help. To get POW laborers, locals would submit a contract detailing how many workers they needed, the job they would be doing, and the housing that would be provided. International rules governing the treatment of POWs required that their work could not be dangerous or related to the war effort; further, they had to be paid and given one day of rest each week. If the contractors met these rules, their request would be approved.

In the spring of 1944, Moorhead-area farmers Henry Peterson and Paul Horn contracted for 150 prisoners to work on their vegetable farms. The first site selected for their housing was in town near the Red River. Locals objected to having the prisoners so close to their homes, so an old onion warehouse on the edge of town was finally chosen. The Moorhead site became known as Algona Branch Camp Number One.

The first forty Germans arrived in Moorhead on Sunday, May 28, 1944. They spent the night in Moorhead in tents on a farm south of town. Afterward, they transformed an onion warehouse into barracks and built an eight-foot barbed wire fence around the camp. The remaining 110 prisoners arrived by train on May 31.

Six days a week, trucks from the Peterson and Horn farms picked up the POWs and their guards and carried them to the fields. There the prisoners planted, hoed, and picked the vegetables or did general farm work. The farmers paid the government 40 cents an hour per prisoner for their labor. In turn, the government paid the prisoners 10 cents per hour in coupons redeemable only at the camp canteen. The remaining 30 cents went toward housing and feeding the POWs.

Prisoners had access to church services, recreational activities, art supplies, and musical instruments during their free time. Several prisoners were expert wood carvers and carved toys, dishes, and other wooden objects that they gave to locals. Relations between the prisoners and the locals were generally positive. Henry Peterson was particularly well-liked by the prisoners. He bent camp rules by buying prisoners beer and taking them into town, including a trip to a movie theater and one to a local tavern.

After the harvest in the fall of 1944, the prisoners returned to the base camp at Algona. The Moorhead site was not prepared to house them during the harsh winter. The following spring, a second but smaller set of POWs arrived for another season. In the fall of 1945, they returned to Algona for the last time.

Through the two seasons of work at the camp, the POWs made lasting relationships that endured after the war. Several former prisoners wrote to Peterson, Horn, and other locals after they had returned to Germany to request help with becoming American citizens. Many expressed gratitude for the treatment they received during their time at the camp. One soldier noted that he had learned about Americans and American politics and would remember the farm where he had worked.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.