Nebraska Historical Marker: Atlanta Prisoner of War Camp
Grand Army of the Republic Hwy, Atlanta, Phelps County, Nebraska
View this marker's location 40.377790, -99.46053
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During World War II, a prisoner-of-war internment camp was located directly north of here. The camp had its beginning in a request by the Holdredge New Industries Committee for a federal conscientious-objector camp to help relieve the severe war-time farm labor shortage. Instead, a prisoner-or-war camp was built. Planning for the camp began in June, 1943. By November, construction had been completed on approximately seventy buildings and seven miles of concrete road. Guard personnel were awaiting the arrival of prisoners. The camp contained three prison compounds, which held a total of 3,000 men. The Atlanta camp also administered smaller branch internment camps in Nebraska. The prisoners at Atlanta were German soldiers captured in the North Africa and Italian campaign. Some 600 military and 130 civilian personnel provided security and maintenance. One prisoner reportedly escaped but returned to the camp voluntarily. The prisoners-of-war were a valuable source of farm labor in the area until the camp was phased out in 1945-46. Material removed from the site provided lumber for postwar constructed and concrete rip-rap for Tri-County irrigation ditches.
The Atlanta Prisoner of War Camp was one of the major prisoner of war camps in Nebraska during World War II. It had satellite camps in Alma, Benkelman, Bertrand, Elwood, Franklin, Grand Island, Hastings, Hebron, Kearney, Lexington, Weeping Water, and several locations in Kansas. At the onset of World War II, the city of Holdrege was in need of laborers. Over 1,400 residents of Phelps County were in active military service, and hundreds more left for the cities to work in war-related industries. The New Industries Committee of the Holdrege Chamber of Commerce and the Tri-County Water Users Association petitioned Nebraska’s congressmen to help out. They responded by proposing to build a camp for Axis conscientious objectors. Instead, a prisoner-of-war camp was built southwest of Holdrege near Atlanta.
The camp was opened on November 29, 1943, in a ceremony open to the public. This was the only time the public was allowed in the camp. The first POWs, all transfers a camp in Concordia, Kansas and 250 in number, arrived on January 25. This group consisted of veterans of the North African campaign. They helped finish the camp’s construction. More prisoners arrived the following spring. These prisoners came from the Italian campaign (February 1944) and Normandy (July 1944). The Holdrege Daily Citizen began to publish a weekly supplement, The Spotlight, about goings-on at the camp. Several articles included tips on how to speak German to the prisoners used as laborers. The camp consisted of three compounds, each housing about 1,000 men. Each compound had barracks, a mess hall, workshop, canteen, infirmary, recreation hall, and administrative building. The camp had one hospital with 113 beds to serve prisoners and guards. A post office at the camp processed 1500 pieces of mail daily. A bi-monthly news magazine, Camp Atlanta EM News, was published for guards at the camp to enjoy. The camp was noted for its efficiency and beauty. Prisoners and guards alike helped plant and cultivate gardens in the camp. The camp’s facilities were noted as being very clean, and the food was good (at least, for a POW camp). Some soldiers even said that the food was better than the food served in the German Army, or the food served in Germany altogether. American soldiers who had lived in German POW camps noted how much better the Germans in American were treated than Americans in Germany. Many Americans complained that the Germans were treated too well in POW camps.
Supplies from the camp came from the Kearney Army Air Field. Prisoners were used as laborers on the camp and in surrounding areas. The bakery was run by the prisoners and produced over 500 loaves of bread daily. Some prisoners were allowed to leave the camp to work on nearby farms. According to the Geneva Convention, workers had to be paid for their labor, but those that did not work were denied full rations and forced to eat only bread and water. Workers could be paid a maximum of $1.20 a day for their work. The POWs who worked in the farms were usually not vehemently pro-Nazi soldiers. Most of them were against the war. Locals sympathized with them, especially when they talked about their families back home. Camp leaders boasted that no one ever escaped from Atlanta, but in fact a few did; however, they were all found or returned voluntarily. On one occasion, five prisoners escaped but were found by two teenage farm boys and returned to custody. The soldiers estimated that it was only 175 miles to San Francisco and 200 miles to New York and that they could find a boat at either location to take them home. They were amazed to find out that America was in fact ten times bigger than they thought.
Some POWs took classes at the camp in a variety of subjects. Teachers were often fellow prisoners who had been school teachers in Germany. Sometimes guards or locals would lecture on topics pertaining to American history and government. These classes were part of a re-education program instituted by the army in hopes that prisoners would return to Germany after the war and set up a democracy. Another part of this program was a German-language newspaper called Der Ruf (The Call), which was sold at the camp canteen. Der Ruf was distributed to all POW camps in America; Camp Atlanta had its own German-language newspaper published by the POWs themselves called the Atlanta Echo. In addition, the theater at the camp was used to show pro-American films. Lt. Dolph P. Stonehill, the head of “re-orientation” programs at the camp, estimated that “50%” of the prisoners at the camp took classes at the camp. “[S]ince many PWs may be future leaders, this schooling ‘might help win the peace,’” the Camp Atlanta EM News reported. “We’re not trying to ‘make Americans’ out of Germans. But we present ‘America’—so they’ll go home with a ‘healthy respect’ for it!” Lt. Stonehill said. It is not known how many POWs stayed at Camp Atlanta. One report estimated 12,000 different prisoners lived in the camp, for varying amounts of time. The November 1945 issue of the Camp Atlanta EM News reported that the camp had “processed nearly 9000 incoming Germans from Africa, Italy & France & transferred 7000 to other camps for labor, discipline or repatriation.” The process of repatriation, that is, returning prisoners home, was a very slow process. Congress asked the War Department to slow repatriation so that imprisoned laborers could help with the harvest. Furthermore, conditions in post-war Germany were not good, so the military was reluctant to send them back home without proper arrangements. President Truman finally gave a deadline of July 1, 1946 for all POWs to be repatriated.
The September 1945 issue of the Camp Atlanta EM News reported that coal workers were being sent home to help with the German economy. By October, there were still 2,671 prisoners assigned to Atlanta (this includes Atlanta’s branch camps; only 1,500 were in Atlanta). Guards at the camp began to be discharged in December, and the camp was declared surplus property on January 1, 1946 (though it was not fully closed for five more months). By that time, all the branch camps had closed. As soldiers began to leave the camp, American officers requested that they turn in their German Army uniforms. The prisoners instead burnt them on the parade grounds. Many of the prisoners repatriated from Atlanta were not sent directly home but instead worked in England and France for a while. One soldier reported that he did not return home until 1947, two full years after the war was over. Many soldiers did not want to go back to Germany, both because of the poor conditions there and the ample opportunity and freedom they saw in America. Many prisoners did return. One former Camp Atlanta prisoner, William Oberdieck, came back to Nebraska and eventually became the owner of Kimmel Orchard in Nebraska City. He has written a book, America’s Prisoner of War, about his experiences. By early spring of 1946, all the prisoners had left Camp Atlanta. That summer, the buildings were sold to locals for salvage. Most of the land was purchased by Harold Warp, the man who had owned the land before the war. He ended up buying the land for $12.50 more an acre than the government had paid him for it in 1943.
Camp Atlanta EM News. September 1945.
Camp Atlanta EM News. December 1945.
“PW Educational HQ.” Camp Atlanta EM News. November 1945: 31. “The Atlanta, Nebraska WWII German POW Camp.” The Nebraska Prairie Museum.
“The Stockade.” Camp Atlanta EM News. November 1945: 21.
Thompson, Glenn. Prisoners on the Plains: The German POW Camp at Atlanta. Holdrege: Phelps County Historical Society. 1993.
See Nebraska Historical Marker Program for more information.