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Just imagine the thought of housing enemy prisoners on our soil.

Sound familiar?

Or even bringing them close to Nebraska.

Imagine no more.

Thousands of German prisoners of war were housed in Nebraska during World War II.

As many as 4,000 were held at a POW camp near the village of Atlanta about five miles southwest of Holdrege. The first trainload were prisoners from Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's crack Afrika Korps.

About 3,300 POWs were detained in a camp at Scottsbluff.

Several thousand at Fort Robinson.

A few thousand more in branch camps at a couple dozen Nebraska locations.

More than 700 Italian prisoners were housed at Fort Crook in Sarpy County.

Altogether, about 12,000 POWs were held at camps in Nebraska, according to most estimates.

It's all but forgotten now.

But the furor over the proposed transfer of some terrorist prisoners and suspects held at Guantanamo Bay to American soil has stirred the hazy mist of Nebraska's POW history.

Little resistance

It's not quite the same.

German prisoners fought on the battlefield and were largely inclined to accept their POW status while riding out the war.

Occasionally, a POW would wander away, mostly because he'd get a little stir crazy, rather than escaping for the purpose of carrying on the fight.

"The only organized incident on the part of the POWs" at Atlanta occurred when they ran out of beer, according to a richly detailed history of the camp written by Glenn Thompson.

The prisoners were allowed to purchase 3.2 alcohol-content beer with canteen scrip earned by performing work.

When the beer ran out one time and a new shipment was delayed, the POWs banged on pots and pans day and night, Thompson wrote in his book, "Prisoners on the Plains."

The Germans were not too thrilled with the low-alcohol 3.2 beer in the first place.

Accustomed to a much stouter brew, they referred to 3.2 as "the American water beer."

Enemy combatants

Rather than POWs, the prisoners at Guantanamo are classified as enemy combatants.

They are considered - or suspected - to be terrorists committed to harming the United States.

Some of the 240 detainees housed in Cuba almost certainly are dangerous. Some simply are suspects held indefinitely without charges.

President Obama has ordered closure of the detention center next January.

Congress last week blocked funding to close the prison, thus preventing transfer of any of the detainees to prisons in the United States pending presentation and consideration of a presidential plan.

'No occasion … to be concerned'

The U.S. government "expected objections to the location of POW camps because of fears among the civilian population of mass escapes and sabotage," Thompson wrote.

Major prisoner-of-war facilities never had been located on American soil before the decision to bring World War II prisoners to the United States, including sites in Nebraska.

"There is no occasion on the part of the populace to be concerned," the War Department stated in a notice issued on Oct. 26, 1943, announcing activation of the Atlanta Internment Camp.

Nevertheless, the notice included these suggested safeguards:

* Securely lock up all firearms.

* Do not leave cars unattended with their engines running.

* Do not leave men's clothing on the clothes line overnight or in outbuildings.

POW camp on the plains

The Atlanta camp emerged along Highway 6 with construction of 178 buildings, big watchtowers, 10-foot-high fences topped with barbed wire and a 145-foot water tower.

The rural countryside near Atlanta (pop. 173 in 1940) soon would be bathed in searchlights.

On Jan. 26, 1944, the first trainload of 250 prisoners arrived. They had expressed a willingness to work in constructing and maintaining the camp.

On Jan. 27, a second trainload of 830 Germans arrived still dressed in battle uniform. Most were in their early 20s.

Another 1,000 prisoners arrived in March.

Most of the POWs were available for farm work and pleased to have physical activity.

Soon, the Holdrege Daily Citizen would begin to publish a column titled: "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"

Over time, many prisoners were scattered at branch camps, including sites at Grand Island, Hastings, Kearney, Hebron, Lexington and Ogallala.

"As the wartime labor shortage intensified across rural America, farmers turned to an unexpected source for replacement farmhands," a brief summary on the Living History Farm Web site states.

'I can never forget your country'

At Fort Robinson, German POWs cared for horses and mules as well as tracking and guard dogs.

Included among the prisoners were members of the 47th German Infantry Regimental Band.

In early 1945, German sailors replaced most of the army prisoners at Fort Robinson, according to the Nebraska State Historical Society.

At Scottsbluff, German and Italian POWs worked in the bean and sugar beet fields.

The last POW left Camp Atlanta on March 16, 1946, about 10 months after Germany surrendered, completing the lengthy task of sending the prisoners home.

In January 1947, Bob Eldridge, who had been civilian chief in charge of the camp's fire department, received a letter from Cologne.

Thompson reports its contents in his book.

"I can never forget your country," Hans Engeln wrote.

"With one word, you are gentlemen.

"Yes, dear Bob, we are a beaten people through the shabby fellows like Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and so on.

"They looked for war, and now it is us who must pay, not only with our work, but with our health.

"Many of my comrades from the Atlanta camps wish we were over there.

"Many have received care packages from farms where they worked."

Reach Don Walton at 473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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