Remembering Wisconsin's World War II Prison Camps

May 9, 2016

Milwaukee County Historical Society assistant archivist Steve Schaffer discussing the history of the World War II prison camp at Camp Billy Mitchell.
Credit Bonnie Petrie / WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio

Europeans have just finished celebrating their 71st Victory in Europe Day. The day marks the official end of World War II in Europe. What you might not know is that it was a significant day for many enemy soldiers in Wisconsin as well.

The state held thousands of prisoners of war.

Milwaukee County Historical Society assistant archivist Steve Schaffer says there were 36 prison camps in Wisconsin during World War II. In Milwaukee, 3,000 Axis prisoners lived at Camp Billy Mitchell, where Mitchell Airport now stands.

Most of the prisoners at Camp Billy Mitchell were Germans captured in North Africa.

Schaffer says the military considered, briefly, setting up prison camps in North Africa, but that would consume property, resources and manpower it simply couldn't spare on the front. Ultimately, it decided to send the captured to the US.

Schaffer says there were several reasons this idea was appealing:

There would be no attempted escapes. There would be no attempted acts of sabotage against the prisoners by the Axis forces, and there was a steady stream across the Atlantic, so American troop ships would go across, and, on the return trip, with wounded and equipment, they would transport the prisoners.

Schaffer says the Germans detained in the US weren’t Nazi party members."They were conscripts. They were regular Joes, as they would have said back then. Machinists, bakers, an artist, some teachers, just regular guys who found themselves captured."

When the prisoners arrived in Wisconsin, the government put them to work. They didn't force them, as the Geneva Accords forbid forced labor. But most were willing to work, and were paid 75 to 80 cents a day. Schaffer says Wisconsin's agricultural industry appreciated the workers, as most young, American men were overseas or in other war industries.

Prisoners harvested potatoes and sugar beets. In Milwaukee, they also did factory work, assembling test batteries.

The military was right about attempted escapes, Schaffer says. Few Axis prisoners tried to leave camp grounds without permission. At Camp Mitchell, two men escaped, but they didn’t escape to make war. Schaffer says they escaped to have fun:

As one of them said, (they escaped) to try some Milwaukee beer. And Milwaukee was very familiar to them, because they would run into people who could speak German.

The two escapees were quickly arrested on Mitchell Street, and sent back to camp.

Just before the first VE Day in 1945, activities at Camp Billy Mitchell began winding down. The US began sending prisoners to detention facilities in England and France in April 1945. By May, 1946, Camp Billy Mitchell closed its doors.