German POWs in WWII




Founded 24 January 1895

Meeting Number 1887

4:00 P.M.

March 3, 2016

German Prisoners of War in the United States during World War II

When They Picked Oranges on the Nies Ranch

Boyd A. Nies, M. D.

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library



During World War II, there were over 370,000 German Prisoners of War here in the U.S., along with about 50,000 Italians and 4,000 Japanese. The U.S. had had no prior experience in dealing with large numbers of foreign POW’s and at the beginning of the War had no facilities for housing them. Thus, an administrative structure had to be established and the actual camps constructed.  Although there were numerous problems along the way, the War Department and cooperating government agencies were largely successful in housing the prisoners and treating them humanely.

An extensive labor problem using the POW’s was developed to alleviate existing labor shortages caused by the War, which had the added benefit of keeping the POW’s busy and less likely to cause trouble. POW’s worked in agriculture, canneries, meatpacking plants, and on military bases.

By 1945, there was a critical shortage of labor for picking Valencia oranges in Orange County, California, necessitating the use of POW’s.   A branch camp to house the prisoners was built in Garden Grove and they picked oranges from their arrival in May and June 1945 until the end of the picking season in November.  One of the groves picked was that of the author’s family of which the author has a personal recollection.

Background of the Author

Boyd A. Nies was born and raised in Orange, California.  He graduated from Stanford University in 1956 and from the Stanford University School of Medicine in 1959.  An internship and residency in internal medicine at the UCLA Medical Center and the Wadsworth Veterans Administration Hospital was followed by sub-specialty training in hematology and medical oncology at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Stanford University Medical Center.  From 1965 to 1995, he practiced hematology and medical oncology in Redlands and San Bernardino.  During periods of that time, he was Chief of the Medical Staff of St. Bernardine Hospital and was also on the clinical faculty of the UCLA Medical Center.  After retirement from full-time practice, he was the Medical Director of the St. Bernardine Hospice for 2 years and later served as a medical oncology consultant for a technology company.  During retirement he has been a board member, and has also served as president, of the Watchorn Lincoln Memorial Association, the Friends of A. K. Smiley Public Library, and Lifestream (formerly the Blood Bank of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties). He has been married to the former Helen Salter for 58 years.  They have 3 children and 6 grandchildren.

German Prisoners of War in the United States during World War II

When They Picked Oranges on the Nies Ranch


At the time of Pearl Harbor, I was 6 years old and our family lived on 5 acres of oranges on North Tustin Avenue in Orange, California.  My Dad, who was a physician, joined the Army Air Corps in December 1942.  Our family joined him at Mitchell Field on Long Island in New York and later when he was transferred to the Dover Army Air Base in Delaware.  After V-E Day in 1945, we were able to return home when Dad was transferred to the Santa Ana Army Air Base. Later that summer, I recall that German-speaking Prisoners of War picked oranges in our grove.  That memory stimulated me to research the history of German POW’s in the U.S. during World War II, with particular reference to those who picked oranges in Orange County.

German Prisoners of War in the U.S. During World War II

As the numbers of those with a personal memory of World War II diminish, the story of Axis prisoners of war in the United States is becoming less well known.   Remarkably, by May of 1945, there were over 370,000 members of the German armed forces here in the U.S. as POW’s, along with about 50,000 Italians and 4,000 Japanese.

The United States had no prior experience in dealing with large numbers of foreign POW’s and, at the beginning of the war, no facilities for housing them.  As increasing numbers of captives began arriving with the onset of the North African campaign in late 1942, an administrative structure had to be established and the actual camps constructed.  Although there were numerous problems along the way, the War Department and cooperating governmental agencies were largely successful in housing the prisoners and treating them humanely.

The POW camps were built in areas remote from industries vital for the war effort and, in general, distant from large population areas. The camps were to be surrounded by 2 sets of at least 8 foot-high chain-link fences situated far enough apart for room for guards and watchdogs. Watchtowers outside the fences were to be at least 6 feet above them for a clear line of sight.  Ideally, the camps were to be built near areas where the POW’s could provide work to relieve existing labor shortages.  Typically, the camps consisted of one to four compounds, separated by barbed wire, each containing about 1,000 men.  Each compound was further divided into 4 companies of 250.  An American officer assisted by 3 sergeants commanded each company.  Later, temporary branch camps of between 250 and 1,000 men were established to take the POW’s to areas where seasonal, often agricultural, labor was needed.

As a signatory of the Geneva Convention of 1929, the United States was obligated to provide living conditions for the prisoners equivalent to those provided for U.S. troops guarding the camps.  Requirements for the POW camps included a mess hall, an administrative building for each company, a chapel, a hospital, a recreational area, as well as adequate bathroom facilities and showers with hot water.  Space requirements were 120 square feet per officer and 40 square feet for others.

Large numbers of German and Italian prisoners began arriving in the United States in the latter half of 1943.  These included many captured by Great Britain, since the British felt they would be unable to house these additional prisoners in compliance with the Geneva Convention. Screening of POW’s in the field was often incomplete and frequently had to be completed after arrival in the U.S.

Most of the POW’s were transported from North Africa, and later from  Europe, on empty troop and supply ships, or in hospital ships if wounded.  The ships sailed in a convoy and took a less than direct route to avoid U-boat attacks.  Camp Shanks, New York and Norfolk, Virginia were the major induction centers.  Many of the Nazis who sailed into New York harbor were surprised to see the City undamaged, in contrast to what they had been led to believe by Nazi propaganda.  Processing was completed at the induction centers.  Lack of interpreters and loss of identification papers particularly caused problems with accuracy.  Determination of rank was important, since officers could not be forced to work, were paid more, and enjoyed more living space, but could not be done, at least initially, if the identification book that each German soldier carried had been lost.  The Italian prisoners had a change in their status in October 1943, when the new non-fascist Italian government switched sides and declared war on Germany.  Those that swore allegiance to the United States were then classified as “co-belligerents”, meaning that they were technically no longer POW’s, but would continue under custodial care, and were no longer subject to the Geneva Convention.  This meant more freedom and ability to work in jobs previously prohibited.

The POW’s were allowed to govern themselves.  In general, the highest-ranking officer was in charge. Many of the initial prisoners captured in the North African campaign were members of the elite Afrika Korps.  Their leaders were hard-core Nazis who imposed the same iron discipline in the POW camps as they had in the German army.  Not all these initial prisoners were Nazis and some were not even German.  This situation led to late night meetings framed as religious ceremonies in which alleged traitors were identified and tried. If found guilty, they were severely beaten, sometimes to the point of death.  Up to 300 murders and forced suicides of this type were estimated to have occurred.  Finally in 1944, the American authorities attempted to stop these atrocities by separating Nazis from non-Nazis.  Initially, POW’s thought to be anti-Nazis were selected for transfer to separate camps.  As might be expected, the determination of who was anti-Nazi was difficult.  In one instance, two months after the creation of one such “anti-Nazi” camp, four POW’s there came forward stating that they were Gestapo agents, and asked to be transferred to a camp with Nazi leadership.  They indicated that they had collected all the information they wanted about the true anti-Nazis in the camp.  Later in July 1944, the War Department realized that it had taken the wrong approach and began isolating Nazi leaders, Gestapo agents, and other extremists into special camps. Probably only 8 to 10 percent of the prisoners were these hard-core Nazis.  Logistically, there were problems with this approach as well, but it met with some success.

By 1943, there was a critical labor shortage, since many of the previous workers had been inducted into the U.S. armed services.  There was a question of what POW work was allowable under the Geneva Convention.  The Geneva Convention of 1929 defined the rules for the humane treatment of military personnel falling into enemy hands.  The United States had signed that treaty and was obliged to follow its provisions.  Many of the guidelines set forth in the Geneva Convention, however, were vague and subject to interpretation. One of its articles stated that POW labor “shall have no direct relation with war operations”.  The War Department struggled to develop a more specific policy with respect to labor of prisoners of war. A definitive policy was published in January 1943 stating: “any work outside combat zones not having a direct relation to war operations and involving the manufacture or transportation of arms or munitions or the transportation of material clearly intended for combat units, and not unhealthful, dangerous, degrading, or beyond the particular prisoner’s physical capacity, is allowable and desirable.”  Specially allowed were employment in “War Department owned and operated laundries; brush clearance and construction of fire breaks; mosquito control, soil conservation and agricultural projects, construction and repair of highways and drainage ditches; strip mining and quarrying and other work of a character similar to the foregoing.”

In order to alleviate the shortage of agricultural workers, the War Department in 1943 implemented a contract labor program using POW’s.  As finally worked out, employer requests for workers were sent to the War Manpower Commission.  If approved, these requests were sent to the service commanders, who then forwarded them to the local camp commanders, who executed the contracts.  Before approval, the WMC certified that the employers had checked with unemployment agencies for civilian labor before agreeing to the use of POW’s and that the working conditions would be similar to those for civilian labor.  Employers paid the prevailing wage to the government minus a deduction if transportation was provided.  Working POW’s received 80 cents per day, with some adjustment allowed depending on how much work was performed.  Enlisted POW’s were paid $3.00 per month in addition to any wages earned.  Officers were paid $20 to $40 per month, depending on their rank.  These moneys were placed in individual accounts, from which coupons were issued which could be exchanged for items at the camp canteens.  Credit balances accumulated in these accounts were repaid to the POW’s prior to repatriation.

By 1943 there was also a shortage of labor for cutting trees to be used for the production of pulpwood.  This work was often dangerous, in which case the Geneva Convention would have prohibited it. Beginning in September 1943, POW’s were allowed to work in the lumbering industry if they only cut small trees and had skilled supervision.  Most of the POW’s had no prior experience harvesting wood, so training both on and off the job was required, but they never became as efficient as pre-war civilian workers.  Much of this work was done for long periods of time in remote mountain areas with extremes of temperatures.  There was also a danger from deer hunters and the POW’s were advised to be sure to sing songs in German and otherwise make a lot of noise. The guards and the civilian supervisors worked along side the POW’s and underwent the same hardships.  Under these circumstances, a certain comradery developed between the POW’s and their overseers.

Other POW’s worked in canneries and meatpacking plants.  Many worked on military bases doing both skilled and unskilled labor.  Jobs there included general maintenance work, kitchen and laundry work, plumbing, construction, and dry cleaning. Repairing of jeeps was also done, which was allowable if the vehicles were not destined for use in a combat zone.  When work was not needed on the base on a particular day, the POW’s were generally assigned to agricultural work.

Although most POW’s worked without major problems, others complained that they were being used as part of the American war effort and in some cases refused to work.  Others attempted work slowdowns, did inferior work, or damaged crops. Policies for dealing with noncompliant POW’s, which were thought to not conflict with the Geneva Convention, were developed by the War Department, which published them in October 1943.  Permissible forms of punishment included verbal reprimanding, restricting privileges and pay, and a bread and water diet for up to 14 days.  The diet restrictions were generally effective in stopping strikes, but sometimes had to be supplemented by other disciplinary measures.

The United States attempted to follow the provisions of the Geneva Convention, since they were obligated to do so under international law. The treaty had also been signed by Germany and many other nations, but not by the Soviet Union or Japan.  Although some atrocities against American POWs occurred, Germany did generally follow the treaty’s mandates and did receive regular inspections from the International Red Cross.  The quality of housing and food in the German run POW camps was not as good as in the camps in the U.S., largely explained by the generally poorer conditions in Germany during the war.  Germany’s treatment of Soviet prisoners, in contrast, was brutal, often involving execution in the field, forced marches, inhumane treatment in POW camps, or shipment to concentration camps.  The treatment of American POW’s by Germany was also in marked contrast to their cruel treatment by Japan.  It is estimated that twenty-seven percent of British and American POW’s died in Japanese captivity, seven times that of those held by Germany.  The American government realized that any disregard of the principles of the Geneva Convention would almost certainly invite retaliation by Germany against the American POW’s held by them, so this was another major factor in the American adherence to the treaty.  The reports of humane treatment of German POW’s by the U.S. may have also contributed to the increased surrender rates by German soldiers toward the end of the war.

One of the main initial concerns of the War Department was the possibility of widespread escapes of the POW’s.  Fortunately, this did not occur, and as the War progressed, it was possible to reduce the number of guards required to oversee the prisoners.  The labor program, with nearly full employment of the POW’s, was important in keeping the prisoners busy and out of trouble. A wide variety of available activities occupied much of the POW’s free time.  An extensive sports program was organized.  Soccer, handball, and volleyball teams were established.  Other POW’s participated in boxing and table tennis.  Music and theater programs were encouraged.  Camp orchestras were formed, with the YMCA supplying many of the musical instruments. Approved movies were made available.  POW’s were allowed to produce their own newspapers, subject to censorship by the U.S. military.  Reading materials were available, also subject to censorship. Extensive educational programs were also organized.

Another factor in reducing the possibility of escapes was, paradoxically, the discipline and order imposed by the Nazi leaders of the POW’s.  Finally, the vastness of the U.S. with no easy access to a neighboring country also discouraged attempts to escape.

Nevertheless, there were numerous attempted escapes.  Under the Geneva Convention, captured soldiers had a legal right and actually a duty to attempt to escape.  If, however, a POW committed a crime during the escape, he could be prosecuted.  There was actually no specific law prohibiting aiding escaped POW’s until 1945.  Charges to those aiding escaped prisoners prior to that time ranged between failing to notify authorities about a military emergency to treason.  In many of the attempted escapes, the POW’s simply walked away from lightly guarded agricultural work sites.  Most of those escapees were rounded up within a few days and returned to camp. There were, however, several dramatic escape attempts.  The most famous of these was the escape from the Papago Park Camp near Phoenix on Christmas eve, 1944. A 200-foot tunnel was constructed, through which 25 German prisoners, mainly submarine officers, escaped, many of whom were carrying large packs of food and other supplies.  All 25 were eventually recaptured.  Attempts at escaping were hampered by the POW’s lack of fluency in English and unfamiliarity with American customs. One such bizarre example was the case of 3 German POW’s, having escaped from a camp in Tennessee, stopped at a mountain cabin to obtain water.  They were met by an old mountain woman with a gun who told them to “git”.  Not understanding what “git” meant, the POW’s didn’t leave and the old lady shot and killed one of them.  Later when she was informed that she had killed a German POW, she began sobbing.  When asked why she was distraught, she replied that she thought they were Yankees.

There were, however, a very few successful long-term escapes.  Of the total of 2,222 German escapees, only 17 remained at large by November 23, 1947.  Perhaps the most sensational case was that of Reinhold Pabel who escaped from a camp near Peoria, Illinois in September 1945.  He made his way to Chicago where, posing as a Dutch refugee, he worked odd jobs as “Phillip Brick”, eventually becoming a salesman in a bookstore.  He even filed an income–tax return in 1946, receiving a refund of $72.   Eventually, he saved enough money to open his own bookstore.  He married an American girl and they had a child in June 1952.  The F.B.I. finally caught up with Pabel in March 1953.  By that time, the public was on his side, having read his story in Time and Collier’s magazines. He was allowed to leave the U.S. voluntarily, with his name to be placed on the priority reentry list.  Pabel was able to return 6 months later.

In 1944, the U.S. began a reeducation program to teach German POW’s about democracy.  This effort was initially secret, since the War Department feared that it might cause retaliation against American POW’s held in Germany.  There was also a possible problem with the Geneva Convention, which prohibited attempts at denationalization.  Article 17 of the Convention, however, encouraged “intellectual diversion”.  Thus, if properly done, a reeducation program was felt to be acceptable under the terms of the Convention. The program did not go into full operation until V-E day in May 1945 and thus was of relatively short duration since repatriation began after the defeat of Japan in August 1945.  Books in German by Steven Vincent Benet, Thomas Mann. Ernest Hemmingway and others were made available.  A national newspaper Der Ruf, produced by POW’s having an anti-Nazi slant, was widely distributed.  Movies including Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series presented the American perspective.  Films about the Holocaust were also shown, eliciting a variety of reactions.  Many, if not most, of the POW’s refused to believe that such atrocities actually took place.  There were, however, groups of prisoners who voluntarily took up collections for survivors of the concentration camps.  In one dramatic instance at Fort Butner, North Carolina, 1,000 POW’s burned their German uniforms after seeing the atrocity films. Overall, as might be expected, the impact of these reeducation programs was limited, primarily due to the difficulty of changing the POW’s ingrained mind-set.

A more intensive program offering an introduction to postwar governmental administration and democratic traditions was made available to volunteers from a select group of anti-Nazi POW’s.  About 20,000 German POW’s participated in these six-day crash courses in democracy, which included lectures and movies. These anti-Nazi volunteers did provide a group that could aid the U.S. military government in occupied Germany.

With the end of World War II in August 1945, repatriation began. The process was slow, but by the end of 1946, most of the POW’s had left the United States. Most of those in German uniform were not returned to their home countries, but were sent to France, England, Belgium, and other allied nations to help repair the devastation caused by the war. Many were not sent back to Germany until 1948 or even later.  In contrast, those who had volunteered for the more intensive reeducation program were promptly repatriated directly to Germany.  Some of the former POW’s did return to the U.S. through the normal immigration process. Of the 30,000 immigrants admitted from West Germany per year from 1948 to 1960, the exact number of former POW’s is not known. Many of the former POW’s returned to visit the campsites and, in some cases, to attend reunions with fellow former prisoners.

When They Picked Oranges on the Nies Ranch

Beginning in 1943, there was a shortage of labor for picking oranges in Orange County, California.  Many of those who had picked in the past were now in uniform.  At that time, Orange County had about 75,000 producing acres of citrus, primarily Valencia oranges, whose picking season was May through November.  In 1943, over 40 packinghouses in the County banded together to form Citrus Growers, Inc., which subsequently recruited workers to harvest the citrus crops and also arranged for facilities to house and feed them.  The majority of this new workforce were Mexican guest workers, the so called “Braceros”.  Others recruited for this wartime workforce were Navajo Indians, Chinese students, Filipinos, and Jamaicans.  The 1945 citrus crop was a particularly large one.  With fewer Mexican nationals available, the Army agreed to supply POW’s to supplement the other laborers. A site to house the prisoners was identified in Garden Grove and was subsequently leased to Citrus Growers, Inc. from the turkey rancher owner.  This 15-acre parcel was on the south side of Garden Grove Boulevard, where there was a frontage of 620 feet.  Most of the property was just west of Clinton Street, although there was a frontage of 100 feet on that street at the upper end.  The lease was to continue for 6 months past the end of the “present National Emergency” at  $125 per month.  Construction of the camp, which included tents for sleeping, a mess hall, a canteen, and other facilities was paid for by Citrus Growers, Inc., which subsequently turned the facility over to the Army Provost Marshall General’s Office, which was responsible for feeding and supervising the POW’s.  Barbed wire fences and guard towers were also built.

250 POW’s arrived at the camp on May 29, 1945, followed by another 350 on June 28.  These men probably came from the permanent camp at Pomona. (One article indicated they came from Corcoran in King’s County.)  The men slept 5 to a tent, and presumably, in accordance with the Geneva Convention, the U.S. Army enlisted men at the camp did the same. There were also 3 U.S. Army officers at the camp.  Since none of the POW’s had any experience in picking or handling oranges, arrangements were made for training sessions to teach them the skills they would need. These prisoners were not the hard core Nazis prominent earlier in the war. They caused no serious problems and generally were good workers.

Citrus Growers, Inc. paid the Army the prevailing rate for each box of oranges picked.  Out of that, the POW’s received 80 cents for each day worked, which was usually 6 days per week.  A typical workday was as follows:  Reveille at 5:30am, Breakfast at 6am, Loading of the trucks at 7am, Arrival at the orange grove with beginning of the workday at 7:30am, Lunch at noon.  The POW’s were trucked back to the camp after picking their quotas, usually 30 to 36 boxes per day per prisoner.  On most days, the POW’s were able to return to camp by early afternoon. There were 20 to 25 prisoners on each truck, accompanied by an armed guard.  Supper was between 5:30 & 6:30pm, after a time for showering and a change of clothes.  The POW uniform had a large “PW” on the back of the shirts with a “P’ on the front of one pant leg and a “W” on the other.  Lights out was at 10pm.

There were no documented escapes from the camp.  In fact, on one occasion, a prisoner was picking in the back of a tree and didn’t notice that the truck had left.  When he realized that he had been left behind, he became quite worried that the Army would think he had escaped.  He made his way to a nearby house and somehow was able to explain to the owner that the camp should be called to pick him up.

POW’s not assigned for agricultural work on a particular day were sent to the Santa Ana Army Air Base where they did general maintenance work.  Despite its name, the base had no planes, runways or hangars, but served as a basic training facility for Army Air Force inductees.  After a nine-week course, the men were tested to determine in which function they could best serve and were then sent to other facilities for more specialized training.  Joe DiMaggio served there as a physical education instructor after he enlisted in the Army Air Corp at a salary of $50 per month.  Gene Autry, Tom Harmon, George Gobel, and Tennessee Ernie Ford received training there. The site of the Base is now occupied by Orange Coast College, the Orange County Fairgrounds, Costa Mesa High School, and Vanguard University.

Citrus Growers, Inc. had a welfare director who, with the permission of the Army, arranged for teachers to come to the camp to teach subjects requested by the prisoners.  Camp shows were arranged on some evenings and appropriate movies were shown on others.  If requested, religious services were held on Sundays. These services were conducted by the Army chaplain, or by a priest or minister approved by the Army.

Some of the POW’s were quite clever in enhancing their life in camp. One group fenced off a small area with a low rock wall in which they constructed a primitive fountain.  Another POW built a violin out of scrap wood.  Hair from the tails of horses caught in the fence surrounding the camp was used to make the bow.

The POW’s remained in the Garden Grove camp during the entire 1945 picking season, from June to November, then returned to their permanent camp.  A second group of over 700 came in June 1946, but only stayed about 2 weeks, before the process of repatriation began.

After the departure of the POW’s, Mexican Nationals were brought to the camp for the remainder of the 1946 picking season.  After the season was over, the turkey rancher owner wanted his land back and the lease was terminated.  Buildings on the site were moved to a new location leased by Citrus Growers, Inc., which served as a camp for the Braceros.

Garden Grove, which was an unincorporated rural area before the end of World War II, has grown tremendously. The city of Garden Grove, incorporated in 1956, had a population of greater than 170,000 in the census of 2010.  Google Earth indicates that a major part of what was the camp is occupied by the Bahia Trailer Park, skirted on the southeast by the Garden Grove freeway.   A transmission service business and an auto and boat upholstery business front on Garden Grove Boulevard.  The Garden Grove Medical Center is located across the Boulevard.  No trace of the camp remains today.



Arnold Krammer, Nazi Prisoners of War in America, (Landham, Maryland: Scarborough House Paperback Edition, 1996.)

Antonio Thompson, Men in German Uniform: POW’s in America during World War II, (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010.)

Unpublished Manuscripts:

Sean Graham, Globally Exchanged German Prisoners of War: The Orange County Context and the 1929 Geneva Convention, A paper for the Humanities Core Course at the University of California, Irvine, 2005.

Douglas Jacobson, When the Wehrmacht Picked Oranges at Disneyland, Date uncertain.

Oral History:

George A. Graham, Imported Labor for Citrus Industry during World War II: OH 1128, interviewed by Donna C. Barasch on March 27, 1972, California State College at Fullerton Oral History Program: Community History Project.

Magazine & Newspaper Articles:

William Lobdell, Story of Garden Grove’s POW’s Gathers Dust, Los Angeles Times, April 12, 2004.

Tom Pulley, Orange County Prisoner of War Camp, County Courier: Official Publication of the Orange County Historical Society, March 2007.

County Courier: Official Publication of the Orange County Historical Society, German Prisoners of War and how They Came to Orange County, November 2004.

County Courier: Official Publication of the Orange County Historical Society, The Santa Ana Army Air Base, November 2010.

Other Resources:

Garden Grove Historical Society, The National Archives at Riverside, Orange County Archives, The California State Military Museum