Matthew Rector, Ft. Knox historic preservation specialist, spoke to the Central Kentucky World War II Roundtable on Aug. 16 about Axis POWs who were held at Ft. Knox.
POWs began arriving in the United States in 1942, and most would be kept until 1946.
After capture, German and Italian prisoners of war were transported to the United States by boat to be processed. From there they were sent to one of the 150 main POW camps across the country. Ft. Knox was site of a main POW camp from February 1944 to June 1946. Most of the prisioners at Fort Knox were German and Italian enlisted men, not officers.
The Ft. Knox POWs had a routine camp life which included work, rules and recreation. Upon arrival they were given new clothing that had the letters “P” and “W” painted on them.
Outdoor and indoor work details were assigned, many times alongside civilian employees.
German prisoners were used to work farms in Kentucky and Indiana, including Madison County.
According to the recollection of their descendents, some local farmers were at least reprimanded by the U.S. military for giving the prisoners more food than authorized. In addition to being compassionate people, the farmers wanted to show appreciation for the good job the POWs had done. Of course, that also gave the POWs incentive to be even more productive. But, the U.S. authorities were unhappy with the farmers for not following the strict rules governing the treatment of POWs.
Many civilians and prisoners got along well with each other and some became friends. The prisoners were paid 10 to 80 cents a day in canteen vouchers which could be used at a commissary set up for them. There they could purchase soap, cigarettes and candy bars among other items.
From 1942 until 1946, these items were in short supply for Americans who were subject for the first time to the deprivations of government rationing. Across the country, 8,000 rationing boards were established to administer these restrictions.
Why would POWs be permitted to purchase items in abundance that was rationed in American society? To comply with Article 28 of the Geneva Conventions, the federal government had to “procure foodstuffs, soap and tobacco and ordinary articles in daily use” and make them available to POWs.
A number of Axis prisoners died while at Fort Knox and are buried in the post cemetery.
Two prisoners, Ernst Schlotter and Frederich Wolf, died as the result of an accidental shooting while guards were trying to identify Nazi thugs.
The newspapers falsely claimed, out of fear of German reprisals against American POWs, that these prisoners were trying to escape.
In February 1945, one prisoner escaped and made it all the way to Nashville, reportedly in his German paratrooper uniform! He boarded a city bus and rode undisturbed before telling the bus driver that he wished to return to Ft. Knox.
The Ft. Knox Cultural Resources Office Environmental Management Division invites the public to help in its ongoing research by sharing POW stories, photographs and items related to this unique time in Kentucky history.
The Central Kentucky World War II Roundtable meets the third Friday of even-numbered months except December. For more information about the roundtable, call Phil Seyfrit at 623-8979.