As a Professor of History at U-D Mercy, Dr. Gregory Sumner appreciates that “you’ll never stop finding stories to tell” that occurred during the years of World War II. He’s following up his 2015 book on the “Arsenal of Democracy” with “…a nice little story that’s set in the quiet middle America, unfolding amidst this horrific, near-apocalyptic global war.” Dr. Sumner will be at the Ferndale Library on Thu., Jan. 31 (at 6:30 pm) to discuss his latest book, Michigan POW Camps in WWII.
During World War II, Michigan became a temporary home to 6,000 German and Italian Prisoners of War (POWs). At a time of homefront labor shortages, they picked fruit in Berrien County, harvested sugar beets in the Thumb, cut pulpwood in the Upper Peninsula and maintained parks and other public spaces in Detroit. “We were sending ships across the Atlantic with our soldiers and equipment, and they were coming back nearly empty. So we came up with the idea of shipping our POWs (from Northern Africa, Italy, Western Europe) back to the U.S. because that way they won’t be escaping and then we’ve got places to put them.”
Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners were allowed to volunteer for work. And “…we had a hellacious labor shortage in the U.S. at that time, especially in Michigan, and especially in the agricultural sector at that time.” These wartime work programs would result in one-third of Michigan’s agricultural labor force being comprised of POWs from 1943-1946. The work programs were not flawless and not all of the prisoners were cooperative, but many of the men established enduring friendships with their captors.
“Most of the POWs were in their late teens or early 20s…they were homesick, but they worked hard and got to know the families on the farms where they worked,” said Sumner. One stipulation under the Geneva Convention was that these POWs weren’t allowed to volunteer for any “war-related” work. That meant you wouldn’t see German or Italian soldiers working on our bombers at Willow Run, but it would mean that they would contribute greatly to the agricultural sector.
During WWII, there were 32 camps scattered all around Michigan, including in the Upper Peninsula. At the Ferndale Library, on Jan 31, Dr. Sumner will anecdotally regale those in attendance of his interviews with current residents of towns like Owosso and Battle Creek, as well as his talks with those who had direct contact with the POWs. Sumner will even share a bit about a big misunderstanding over an “escape,” that led to a federal investigation and claims of treason…, right here in Michigan!