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When WWII came to Florida

German prisoners stayed in camps in the Tampa Bay area, made up for labor shortages and left a lasting impression.

Published August 28, 2005

[Courtesy of Florida State Archives]
About 10,000 POWs called Florida home. They came from German submarine crews or from the battlefields of Africa and Europe.

They packed oranges and milled lumber. Some learned English and the tenets of American-style democracy. A few even worked in Miami beach resort hotels.

They were the 10,000 German prisoners of war who called Florida home during World War II. About 500 were housed at MacDill Army Airfield in Tampa with another 395 at nearby Drew Army Airfield.

At the time, few Florida residents knew much about the camps. Even today, 60 years after the end of the war, the quirk of state history remains mostly overlooked.

"Most people haven't any idea that so many German POWs stayed in Florida," said Robert Billinger, a history professor at Wingate University in Wingate, N.C. "It's a fascinating story."

He should think so. Billinger wrote the book on the topic, Hitler's Soldiers in the Sunshine State, published in 2000.

The captured soldiers helped make up for the shortage of laborers brought on by the war. They worked extensively in Florida's agricultural industry.

At MacDill, they worked as janitors and mechanics and in mosquito control, the mess hall and laundry.

Many of the POWs were crewmen from German submarines captured in the Caribbean or along the Atlantic Coast. Others came from the battlefields of Africa and Europe.

Germany controlled much of Europe during the war, making it hard for the Allies to imprison captured soldiers on the continent. The United States became home to about 378,000 German POWS.

Camp Blanding near Starke was the primary camp in Florida, holding about 1,200 prisoners at its peak. More than 20 branch camps, each holding several hundred prisoners, cropped up around the state.

The German POWs received three meals a day and slept in military-style barracks. They earned about $1 a day for their labor and had access to commissaries where they could buy cigarettes, sodas and, in some instances, beer.

"We were trying to be good to them, so that the Germans would be good to our prisoners in Europe," Billinger said.

The military, though, did not want to be perceived as coddling the enemy.

"That explains why the program was kept out of the public eye for so long," Billinger said.

Inside the camps, the greatest tensions were not between guards and prisoners. Some prisoners tried to escape, and a few were shot for trying. But the greatest animosity was between various factions of the German troops, Billinger found during his research.

Anti-Nazis vs. Nazis. Loyal officers vs. deserters. Ethnic groups clashed. Unit rivalries resulted in some problems as well. A riot once broke out at Camp Blanding.

But "the camps were generally peaceful," Billinger said.

When the war ended, most of the prisoners remained in the camps for several months, continuing to help out in the agricultural and other industries.

Eventually, the POWs were sent to Britain and France, where many were put to work repairing the damage done by the German war machine. The conditions were not as favorable as in the U.S. camps.

Billinger concluded that the interaction between Americans and German POWs had a "humanizing effect" on both sides.

"They look like us, they think like us. Maybe these enemies aren't so bad," Billinger said. "A lot of the German POWs that survived the war became big supporters of the United States."

[Last modified August 28, 2005, 01:11:05]

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