Foreign detainees wouldn't be Midwest's first

Wednesday, August 5, 2009 | 7:26 p.m. CDT

LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — If suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay end up being held in Kansas, it wouldn't be the first time foreign detainees were imprisoned in the Midwest.

Thousands of Germans and Italians spent the last days of World War II in confinement on the prairie, far from the deserts of North Africa and plains of Western Europe.

As the U.S. weighs what to do with 229 suspected al-Qaida, Taliban and foreign fighters now jailed at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, one possibility is moving them to the military penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

But historians say the circumstances and Midwesterners' acceptance of the World War II POWs was far different from opposition being raised to bringing in Guantanamo prisoners. Many Kansas residents and elected leaders say they don't want them, worried the detainees would pose a security risk.

"It is not supported by the American public and will not change the world's opinion of us one iota by substituting the name 'Leavenworth' for the name 'Guantanamo," Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said Monday at Leavenworth.

During World War II, thousands of prisoners of war were held in Kansas, Missouri and Michigan — another possible site for Guantanamo detainees — as well as other states. Historians agree there was little opposition.

"It was a very different attitude and time," Kansas Historical Society historian Virgil Dean said Tuesday. "That's not to say that there weren't people who resented them being here. But they were generally well treated and not a major concern for people."

Dean said that to many Americans it was Adolf Hitler — and not the German people or even German soldiers — who was viewed as the enemy.

But experts said Kansas residents did oppose relocating Japanese Americans to the Midwest. Dean said the feeling was that the Japanese were to be feared, especially after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

Those views, he said, aren't unlike what some Americans hold toward Muslims today.

"You couldn't know for sure who you could trust, regardless of how long they had been a citizen, a legal resident, a good American," Dean said. "You could easily more separate the good Germans from the bad Germans and the Nazis."

For example, officials could determine who were Gestapo members and keep them under closer watch. Others who were regular soldiers were not thought to be a threat outside the wire.

Bill McKale, a historian at Fort Riley, Kan., where several hundred POWs were confined, said any comparison of holding German prisoners and the Guantanamo detainees has to be viewed through a different cultural and political mindset.

The war wasn't going well for Germany in 1943 and 1944, with the Russians advancing in the east and Allies moving out of Africa and up through Italy.

"Those guys from World War II were probably happy not to be on the Eastern Front and winter, or post-D-Day fighting in Western Europe," McKale said. "It's part of that whole cultural thing and gets into the sociology of warfare. People who don't act like we do you are suspicious of."

At Fort Riley, the prisoners were kept at Camp Funston, where today advisers train for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some prisoners worked in the post laundry while others did landscaping or repaired streets. Those at another Kansas outpost, Camp Concordia, were sent out to nearby farms to help with the harvest or put up hay. Concordia had more than 4,000 prisoners in confinement, the largest contingent in Kansas.

"They were the model prisoners. There wasn't going to be hard cases going out," McKale said.

The prisoners, representing all branches of the German and Italian militaries, were captured and sent across the U. S. from 1943 through 1945.

At Fort Riley, the museum has photos and artifacts from the period, including one from the funeral of a German soldier and his casket draped with a Nazi flag.

"The prisoners are giving the Heil Hitler salute. It's kind of a chilling photo," McKale said.

Fourteen German prisoners were executed after the war in 1945 at Fort Leavenworth for killing other prisoners. Their bodies are buried in the prison cemetery near where the old facility stood.

McKale said the prisoners' movements were strictly regulated. Security was the top priority and armed soldiers weren't ever far from sight.

"It's amazing how quickly we forget," Dean said. "It's important to remember that we've been here before, one way or another, and we're able to figure out a way to deal with it."



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