Kansas housed thousands of POWs during World War II; town celebrates history as Guantanamo concerns grow

As political leaders in Kansas are speaking out against the possibility of moving enemy combatants being held in Guantanamo Bay to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, another Kansas town is celebrating its history of housing prisoners of war.

Only a few buildings remain of Camp Concordia, which was located about three miles outside of the town of Concordia and once held more than 4,000 German POWs during World War II. But community leaders there have restored what’s left and turned the former prison into a tourist attraction celebrating that time in the city’s history.

Lowell May, who has written a book about the camp’s history and is a member of the POW Camp Concordia Preservation Society, said people of the town initially had many of the same concerns being expressed today about the danger of housing enemy prisoners. But he said they soon got over that fear as the camp became an integral part of the community.

“One woman told me, we didn’t know if we were going to be murdered in our beds at night. But after a few months, those fears started dying down,” he said.

“You have to remember, though, the Germans were members of an organized army that had been captured in combat,” he said. “They operated by rules. So once they were put in a camp, they accepted that and pretty much went along and rode out the rest of the war.”

Paul Rimovsky, who also volunteers for the preservation society, said few people thought at the time that housing POWs might make them a target for German sabotage or terrorism.

“I don’t think that entered their minds at the time,” he said. “But World War II was probably the last time everyone in this country was united. They considered what was going on was part of the war effort.”

Common sites in WWII

During World War II, May said, nearly every state in the nation had at least one POW camp. An estimated 360,000 POWs were held on U.S. territory during the war.

Camp Concordia was the largest of 16 camps in Kansas. It mainly housed German prisoners who’d been captured in battles in North Africa.

The camp was built in just 90 days, at a cost of $1.8 million, and opened in July 1943. It operated for about a year and a half, until it officially closed after the war in November 1945.

At the time, according to its website, it had 304 buildings including a 177-bed hospital, a fire department, warehouses, cold storage, an officers club, barracks, mess halls and administrative buildings for both the prisoners and American soldiers.

Today, only four structures remain, including a restored guard tower.

May said there were two other large POW camps in Kansas, one at Fort Riley and another called Camp Phillips near Salina, along with 13 smaller “branch” camps, including one in Lawrence.

The Lawrence camp stood near 11th Street and Haskell Avenue. The remaining buildings of that camp were destroyed by fire in 1987.

After the war, May said, some of the barracks buildings were taken by town residents and moved into the city where they were converted to houses. Others were taken by area farmers and turned into barns or storage sheds.

Life as a POW in Kansas

Rimovsky said it was common at all the camps for enlisted prisoners to work jobs, usually in farms or factories, and those men were paid for their labor.

“Enlisted men could go out and work on farms,” he said. “Most of them did because they got paid for that. And they could spend their money. They had canteens for them where they could buy pop, candy, cigarettes and even beer. Enlisted men were the only ones who worked. It was run by the rules of the Geneva Conventions, but officers could work as supervisors.”

“KU set up classes for the officers,” he said. “They had a regular university with over 300 courses available. And when they went back to Germany, they got certificates from KU saying what courses they’d taken that they could apply toward college degrees.”

In Lawrence, many prisoners worked at a local cannery. Some worked on the campus of Kansas University doing landscaping and cleanup work, and a few who were trained as stone masons contributed to building Danforth Chapel.

According to May, there were few incidents of violence at Camp Concordia, and those that did occur typically involved the prisoners themselves.

“The only violence was against other prisoners, where the hardcore Nazis, before they were separated from the others, would take their rap out on the other prisoners,” he said.

“One captain kept a diary in which he was critical of Hitler and the German army,” May said. “They found it and held a kangaroo court. They sentenced him to death, gave him a rope, and told him to do the proper thing or his family would suffer after the war. So he hanged himself.”

May said it was also standard policy for the prisoners to receive communiques from the German army through Switzerland, and those messages gave prisoners the official German account of how the war was going.

“Nazis in the camp would have a meeting at night to put out the German word about how the war was going,” he said. “People were scheduled to attend, and if they didn’t attend, they would suffer the consequences.”

Remembering history

The restored Camp Concordia officially opened this summer, almost exactly 70 years after it closed.

Rimovsky said the idea of restoring what was left of the prison began in 1995, during the 50th anniversary observances for the camp.

“We contacted guards, and some of the prisoners,” he said. “Fourteen of the prisoners came back for a celebration. After that was over, we had a great time with those prisoners that came back. They were very, very nice people. And we got to thinking, maybe we ought to save some of that stuff out there.”

Today, the camp is free and open to the public daily, and tours are available by appointment through the Concordia Convention and Visitors Bureau.