Treatment of POWs and the International Red Cross in World War Two (Part 1 of 3)

During World War Two, the Allied powers along with the Germans and their allies (excluding Japan) communicated specifics required by the Third Geneva Convention to each other through the International Red Cross. The most important information communicated was the name and rank and identification number of each newly captured prisoner of war. Mail between POWs and their families went through the International Red Cross. POWs were not allowed to write to one another.

German POWs in the United States (there were eventually almost 400,000) organized classes in every subject conceivable in their various camps. In May 1944, the Reich Ministry of Education issued detailed instructions through the International Red Cross to these men, specifying which German universities would accept their educational credits and how these were to be documented.

At the same time, also through the offices of the International Red Cross, German Armed Forces High Command issued to each German POW held by the United States, a 40 page booklet, Studiennachweis fur Kriegsfangene, or Evidence of Study for War Prisoners. These booklets were printed in Germany, sent to the International Red Cross in Switzerland, which shipped them to the United States whence they were distributed to German POWs by the American Red Cross. (Similar action being taken in other countries holding German POWs.)

These booklets served as certified transcripts and each student who passed a course had this book or another form signed by the class instructor then counter-signed by the American camp commandant. (All German POWs in the US were in the official custody of the US Army Provost Marshal and all POW camps were administered by the US Army.) German POWs were also allowed to take correspondence courses from various American universities.

[Images courtesy of Alabama Heritage, published by the University of Alabama.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

3 thoughts on “Treatment of POWs and the International Red Cross in World War Two (Part 1 of 3)”

  1. LOL, no, that would be Vermont or Quebec (though it is a big part of the state’s agricultural industry). I’d appreciate that list. Back then, as now, the biggest industry in the state revolved around papermaking, which included logging in the vast woods north and west of Moosehead Lake. There was also a big and thriving industry in growing potatoes, the harvesting of which almost certainly included POWs.

    The potato thing reminds me of a naval story from WWII which I initially thought apocryphal, but later saw recounted in a semi-official history of USN destroyer operations (writing this spontaneously from memory, the specifics elude me, but now I’ll have to look it up again or I won’t sleep nights). It seems a US destroyer found itself in a confrontation with a Japanese sub. The destroyer forced the sub to surface, and the deck gun crews commenced to fire, but the range was very close and they couldn’t depress their weapons enough. In fact, the Captain decided to try ramming. As the vessels came on a collision course, the Captain couldn’t quite complete the maneuver. The destroyer and the sub came directly alongside each other, and the US sailors took to firing Tommy guns at the Japanese sailors on deck. Other sailors in the heat of the moment, and frustrated at their inability to join the fray, found a tub of potatoes on deck ready to be peeled for the day’s meal. They grabbed the potatoes and began throwing them at the Japanese sailors on the sub, cursing mightily as they hurled their “weapons” until the potatoes (and presumably, much of the evening’s supper) ran out. If I remember correctly, the destroyer was able to move away enough to use her 5″ deck guns to sink the sub. Later, the Maine Potato Board presented the crew with a plaque for their impromptu use of potatoes (perhaps harvested by German POWs?) as a weapon in their fight against the Japanese sub.

  2. I have a list of camps by state compiled by the Office of the Provost Marshal which I received from the National Archives in 1981. I will dig it out and I can tell you exactly how many POW camps there were in Maine, where they were and what kind of work they did. Maybe they also made maple syrup. I think that is Maine’s largest industry.

  3. In my younger days, my friends and I made trips every summer to the wilderness of Northern Maine to camp and fish the brooks and rivers. We’d always heard legends that there was once a POW camp somewhere deep in the woods around the area we fished. We’d always believed the POWs worked in the woods alongside the locals who logged these woods, and we always looked around for evidence of this. I’ve done a bit of research, but haven’t been able to find much specific detail. I do know there was at least one POW camp in Maine, but as best I can tell, the prisoners worked in the potato fields. I’m fascinated by the nuts and bolts of the POW experience here in America. We never did find any remains of old POW camps, but the legend always captivated us.

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