Skip to content

Subscribe  |  Login  |  Account

Prisoners on the peninsula


Courtesy of the Cape Cod Military Museum

To secure the camp, a stockade was built around the buildings featuring two barbed wire fences, the interior of which was electrified. The camp had an infirmary, a post exchange, a visitors building, single- and double-decker barracks, a recreation building and a guard tower at each corner. According to Anthony Cimino’s publication Camp Edwards in World War II, the prison camp had the capacity to hold as many as 2,000 men at a given time.

During the war, Camp Edwards had a large convalescent hospital where servicemen from across the country who had been injured in battle were rehabilitated; after treatment at Camp Edwards, they would be sent to hospitals closer to their homes. Ellis says German prisoners were also treated at this hospital—but they were admitted through a separate entrance.

According to stipulations agreed to in the Geneva Convention of 1929, prisoners of war could be required to work for the benefit of their captors. At American military bases in World War II, most of the work prisoners were asked to do involved duties regularly performed by American soldiers, many of whom were stationed overseas. In his book Nazi Prisoners of War in America, Texas A&M history professor Arnold Krammer estimates that on military installations alone, German prisoners completed more than 90,000 man-days of labor between early 1943 and December of 1945.

The prisoners were given operational and maintenance tasks to perform around the base; they were also used for contract labor, mainly at nearby farms and industrial plants. This was important, Krammer writes, because as the mobilization of American forces increased as the war stretched on, the prospect for filling the enormous holes in production at American plants and farms grew bleak.

Contractors who would hire the prisoners faced several obstacles, including completing an extensive government application; other challenges included a lack of training for specific tasks, language barriers, and concerns about security.

In camps across the country,  prisoners were paid 80 cents per day in canteen coupons, with an opportunity for more productive workers to earn $1.50. The coupons could be used to buy cigarettes, candy and other items in the post exchange. In an arrangement with the federal government,  farmers who employed prisoners would pay the free market rate for the work performed—paid to the prisoners in coupons—with the difference paid to the Treasury Dept. to support the POW program.

With so many young men serving overseas, many farms on Cape Cod were in dire need of laborers to help harvest strawberries, cranberries and other crops. According to—the website for the Woods Hole Historical Museum—in 1944 alone German prisoners aided with the harvest of 90,000 quarts of strawberries at Falmouth farms.

You might also like: