During World War II, over 6,000 prisoners were housed in Prisoner of War (POW) camps in Michigan. Approximately 1,000 POWs were held in the Upper Peninsula, while 5,000 were housed in the Lower Peninsula. Many of the camps were former Civilian Conservation Corps barracks that had been idled since the program disbanded in 1942. Most of the prisoners were German soldiers captured in North Africa.
World War II created a huge labor shortage in the U.S. due to the draft. One solution was to use POW labor in the agriculture and forestry fields. Approximately sixty percent of the POWs in Michigan were contracted out to work on farms picking fruit and other crops. POWs also cut pulp wood in the forests of the Upper Peninsula, earning eighty cents per day.
By all accounts the prisoners were respectful and well-behaved. There were very few escape attempts reported. The American Red Cross inspected the camps to monitor conditions, but there were few complaints, as the German POWs had heard rumors of the horrible conditions in Russian POW camps.
At the close of World War II, the prisoners were returned to their homeland under the terms of surrender. Some of the POWs maintained contact by writing letters to their former employers after the war. A few former prisoners immigrated to the U.S. Some POWs who died in camps are buried at Fort Custer National Cemetery at Battle Creek.
There were 32 POW Camps in Michigan. While the existence of the camps was not kept secret, it was not publicized for security reasons.
List of Camps:
Barryton, Mecosta County, MI
Benton Harbor, Berrien County, MI
Blissfield, Lenawee County, MI
Caro, Tuscola County, MI
Coloma, Berrien County, MI
Croswell, Sanilac County, MI
Fort Custer, Galesburg, MI
Dundee, Monroe County, MI
Camp Evelyn – Alger County, MI
Freeland, Saginaw County, MI
Fremont, Newaygo County, MI
Camp Germfask – Germfask, MI
Grant, Newaygo County, MI
Grosse Ile Township, Wayne County, MI
Hart, Oceana County, MI
Camp Lake Odessa, Ionia County, MI
Mattawan, Van Buren County, MI
Mass, Ontonagon County, MI
Milan (USFR), Monroe and Washtenaw Counties, MI
Odessa Lakes, Tuscola County, MI
Camp Owosso – Shiawassee County
Camp Pori – Upper Peninsula
Camp Raco – Upper Peninsula near Sault Ste. Marie
Romulus Army Air Field, Wayne County, MI
Shelby, Oceana County, MI
Camp Sidnaw – Sidnaw, MI
Sparta, Kent County, MI
Wayne (Fort), Detroit, Wayne County, MI
Waterloo, Jackson County, MI
Wetmore, Alger County, MI
The Archives of Michigan has in its Oral History collections an interview with the late Ernst Floeter (August 8, 1925 – August 29, 2015) who served as a Prisoner of War of the United States during World War II. Click here to listen to the complete audio and learn more about this topic through his firsthand experience. Click here to view a transcript of the interview.
States of Incarceration
Learn more about the history of incarceration in the traveling exhibit, States of Incarceration
Many fascinating stories like this one were featured in our special exhibit, States of Incarceration, from September 2018 - May 2019. This national traveling exhibit explores the history and impact of mass incarceration nationwide. During its run at the Michigan History Museum, it included stories throughout to reflect specifically on Michigan’s place in the past and future of mass incarceration.
Albert M. Ewert was a chaplain with the Michigan Department of Corrections in the 1930s, a time when prison reform was a big issue across the United States. Reverend Ewert was at the forefront of this reform in Michigan… Read More
The selection of Jackson for the site of the Michigan State Prison in 1837 was a decision based on economics. Several Jackson businessmen had lobbied the State Legislature for the prison because they were seeking a source of cheap labor for their factories. … Read More
Ewert was part of a reform movement within the penal system across the country. This movement placed an emphasis on education and rehabilitation long before prisoner re-entry programs were officially developed. Along with his suggested reforms of the parole system, Reverend Ewert developed an arts… Read More
Reimund Holzhey robbed stagecoach and train passengers in northern Michigan and Wisconsin during the late 1880s. His downfall began on August 26, 1889, when he stopped a stagecoach between Gogebic Station and Lake Gogebic. In the process of robbing it, he shot Adolph G. Fleischbein… Read More
In the early 1880s Jackson Wagon Company received a telegram from the world-famous circus master P.T. Barnum. He inquired whether the Jackson company could build a wagon that was sturdy enough to hold 13,000 pounds. It seemed that one of Barnum’s star attractions, Jumbo… Read More
During a promotional tour of the Upper Peninsula during the summer of 1953, Detroit Red Wings general manager Jack Adams and team captain Ted Lindsay visited the Marquette Branch Prison. After a tour of the correctional facility, warden Emery Jacques invited the Red Wings back… Read More
Today we are relatively accustomed to the idea of old, closed-down prisons being destinations for curious tourists; think Alcatraz Island and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. But the idea of prisons as tourist attractions has been around since the 19th century - though not… Read More
"States of Incarceration" is a national traveling exhibit that looks at the history and future of mass incarceration in the United States. In It was created by university students and formerly incarcerated individuals from 30 communities across the country. Investigating why the U.S. incarcerates more… Read More