Among the little-known stories of World War II is the fact that rural areas across the continental United States were home to prisoner of war camps housing thousands of German and Italian soldiers.
Professor of History Gregory Sumner came across this information while researching his last book, Detroit in World War II, and found it interesting enough that he pitched the idea for his new book, Michigan POW Camps in World War II, to the same printer. They gave him the OK and he was off.
“I’m interested in storytelling,” Sumner said. “I don’t write for a narrowly academic audience, but a general audience. And World War II is an ever popular topic. There is bottomless interest and there are bottomless stories. When I speak around the state at libraries and other places about my books, I leave plenty of time for comments because everyone has a story to share, and I think it’s important that we keep telling them.”
Of the 425,000 POWs held in more than 500 camps on U.S. soil, 6,000 spent their time in one of the 32 camps set up in Michigan. These men were a godsend to the state’s farmers, food processors and pulpwood producers whose workers were overseas fighting the war.
These were not hardened fighters, Sumner said. Many were still in their teens and happy to put an ocean between them and enemy bullets.
“Most were young, homesick guys,” he said. And, though fraternization between the locals and the POWs was strictly forbidden, Michiganders couldn’t help but be charming hosts. “They formed friendships in the camp and in the community, and that’s the story I wanted to tell,” Sumner added.
The camps were fairly minimal security and the guards — often older men not fit to be fighting — were usually lax with their charges, often passing the time by drinking and playing cards with them. The prevailing thought seemed to be the prisoners could have escaped, but to where?
“One man I interviewed told me it was like ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ in reverse,” Sumner said, referring to a popular sitcom about Allied forces who merely let their German captors think they were in charge at a POW camp.
Sumner does relate one tale about two young women from Bennington, near Owosso, who caused a scandal and found themselves in legal trouble for helping some prisoners escape. Stories like this, though thrilling, were rare, he said.
Sumner said he loves doing the research it takes to write a book and research for this one was particularly interesting because it took the dyed-in-the-wool Hoosier to parts of Michigan he had never been before — including the Upper Peninsula.
“The writing is the hardest part,” Sumner said. “But I do it because I think people should know these stories. Especially young people. My mission in life is to get young people interested in history and the way to do that is to tell stories people find interesting.”
“Michigan POW Camps in World War II” is available at bookstores everywhere and online.