The idea for my YA novel, “The Swastika Tattoo” came to me more than ten years ago when I was doing research for my first novel, “City of Refugees.” I was doing research in the Arizona section of the Phoenix Library when I came across an article about a WW II German prisoner of war camp that was located in Papago Park, about seven miles east of Phoenix, in an area known today as Tempe, Arizona.
I never knew the United States had German prisoner of war camps, and so I began doing research about them. Amazingly, there were more than 500 camps in the United States during WWII filled with about 360,000 men who had been captured in the European theater of the war. What I found even more interesting was that Camp Papago Park was where German submariners or U-boat crewmen were sent. My mind began to picture these German men who were so close to the sea, stuck in the middle of the Arizona desert.
Almost all of the prisoners, with the exception of German officers, were used to fill the tremendous gap in labor needed in the United States because of the shortage of men. American farmers, lumber companies, paper plants, mills–not to mention labor needed on stateside military installations–signed contracts with the War Department to use the German prisoners of war. From the end of 1943 to the spring of 1946 when all of the prisoners were repatriated, the prisoners were employed on every major agricultural crop in nearly every state in the union. The POWs at Camp Papago Park were used mainly to pick cotton and citrus crops.
The men were paid 80 cents a day (paid in coupons, not American dollars) including 10 cents a day which every enlisted prisoner got for the purchase of toothpaste, shoe polish, razor blades, handkerchiefs, and tobacco at the camp canteen. For those who chose to save their meager 80 cents in coupons, they returned to Germany with several hundred dollars in their pockets. Most, however, returned with about $50, and that was considered a great deal of money in war-torn Germany.
While sitting in a prison camp was not what these men of Germany wanted to do, they took the opportunity to take classes which were held most every night in the concentration camps. They learned English, French, law, business, and history among many different course offerings. They had sports teams, produced plays, organized orchestras, and enjoyed a multitude of crafts. Many came away with fond memories of their time in America, having developed friendships with the farm families they worked with. That’s not to say all did, particularly those who were hardened Nazis and who hated everything America stood for–freedom, independence and the ability to question those in authority.
Next time: The teaching of democracy.
Copyright Geraldine Birch. All rights reserved.