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UPPER PENINSULA — In 1944, hundreds of German prisoners of war (POWs) were brought to the Upper Peninsula and dispersed to five different POW camps: AuTrain, Evelyn, Pori, Sidnaw, and Raco.
These camps had formerly been used as Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps from 1933-1942. As a part of President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ programs, the CCC gave millions of men employment during the Great Depression. The camps were abandoned until 1944 when the five locations in Alger, Chippewa, and Houghton counties, were turned into POW camps.
POWs in the U.P. were used to alleviate a major shortage of manpower. Many men had gone to fight in the war and this left jobs open.
“They used them, in the Upper Peninsula, to cut pulpwood to help this shortage of manpower for the cutting of the pulpwood, the making of the paper products,” says John Pepin, Producer of “The Enemy in our Midst”.
POWs were paid 80 cents per day for their labor. They had a daily quota of pulpwood to harvest. Those who didn’t want to work in the woods worked in the kitchen for a smaller pay. Once the days work was done, prisoners were given free time.
Due to the Upper Peninsula’s remote location and harsh winters, prisoners were not likely to try and escape and if they did they were quickly caught and returned; it was the perfect area for the POW camps. But most prisoners did not want to escape as they were treated quite well.”
“There were of course guidelines or tenants for treatment of prisoners laid out in the Geneva Conventions and the United States wanted to abide by those,” explains Pepin, “They did a lot of fun activities; there were classes that they would take at some of the camps. There was…at one camp there was an orchestra, there were classes in like auto mechanics, they played games like ping pong, they were big on playing soccer.”
Guards from the camps and residents of the area also said prisoners loved to sing. They were able to go fishing and drink soda and beer. The hope was that if the Americans treated the German and Japanese POWs well that the American prisoners would also be treated well. Unfortunately, that did not seem to be the case.
While the prisoners grew accustomed to life in the U.P., residents also had to learn to live with the enemy in their midst and at first there was some apprehension.
“But after they were here for a while and they became sort of, a relatively common sight for the 26 months that they were here, they would be travelling in trucks back and forth to the wood cutting jobs and they would be singing or they would hear about the camps and there wasn’t trouble there, that those early feelings of animous or apprehension sort of dissolved,” says Pepin.
In fact, many guards and prisoners got along quite well. Pepin mentioned speaking with the wife of one of the guards at Camp Sidnaw in Houghton County, she lived at the camp with her husband. Years after the war ended they traveled to Germany to visit one of the former POWs that had been stationed at Sidnaw.
German soldiers had been told that the United States had been destroyed and there was nothing left. When POWs came to the U.S. they were shocked by what they saw. While some held an animosity towards America, many were happy to be here and free from the war that they were forced to fight. In fact, some prisoners that worked in the U.P. eventually immigrated to Michigan to live out their American dream.
By 1945 German POWs were being sent back home, some made it back to Germany others were sent out to other parts of Europe to rebuild what had been destroyed. The POW camps were abandoned and now are nearly unrecognizable.
Pepin, a journalist for the Mining Journal at the time, along with journalist Jackie Chandonnet produced the documentary “The Enemy in our Midst”, retelling the history of the camps and the stories of those that were there with first-hand accounts.
“They were very concerned that their story was never going to be told because it wasn’t in the history books and they were very pleased that we were going to do something to let other people know about what happened and what the story was. It’s a very human story and it’s a very uplifting story,” says Pepin.
To watch part two of our coverage on POW camps, click here.
You can purchase “The Enemy in our Midst” DVD by emailing email@example.com for exclusive interviews from former prisoners and guards of the camps.