By Mary Giorgio
Between 1941 and 1946, the United States detained over 500,000 German, Italian, and Japanese prisoners-of-war (POWs). In Indiana, Camp Atterbury became the temporary home of thousands of these men. Located on a quiet stretch of land four miles west of Edinburgh, Camp Atterbury now serves as an active National Guard training base.
Camp Atterbury opened in 1942 as an Army training facility following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The camp was named for William Atterbury, a native of New Albany and recipient of the prestigious Distinguished Service Medal during World War I. Camp Atterbury sat on over 40,000 acres of land with over 1,700 buildings that included barracks, officer quarters, mess halls, a library, a post office, a hospital and recreational facilities.
Between 1942 and 1946, the facility housed almost 45,000 enlisted men and officers. In addition to combat training, the facility’s hospital for wounded soldiers provided medical training. In the latter years of the war, it also served as a disembarkation and discharge center for many of Indiana’s enlisted men.
In 1943, the camp became the unlikely home of thousands of Italian POWs. A large compound for POWs was constructed on 45 acres on the west side of the camp. The compound contained around 100 structures and held up to 3,000 POWs. The 1537th Service Unit was provided with special training in the care of POWs and assigned to run the encampment.
The first Italian POWs arrived on April 30, 1943, and their numbers soon reached capacity. Many of these men were members of Italy’s Afrika Korps, who had surrendered to the Allied forces in May of 1943. Supposedly, realizing their living conditions would be better as American POWs than as soldiers in the Italian army, many willingly surrendered to US armed forces, a pattern that would be repeated through the war’s duration.
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In the summer of 1943, the first wave of POWs, many of whom were Catholic, built a tiny chapel at Camp Atterbury. It was nicknamed “the Chapel in the Meadow.” The men used discarded building materials from other camp building projects and natural dyes from nearby flower and berry patches to complete the chapel.
Life at Camp Atterbury was pleasant for the POWs who stayed there. They received fresh clothing, nutritious meals, and warm beds. A soccer field and amphitheater were provided for recreation. Some Americans felt this accommodating treatment of POWs was unwarranted given their status as enemies of the United States. However, the American government had agreed to abide by the standards for POW care set forth in the 1929 Geneva Convention.
POWs living at Camp Atterbury were required to work at the camp. Some were employed as groundskeepers, maintaining the camp’s exterior or working on the camp’s 220-acre farm. Others cleaned the camp’s laundry or worked on other housekeeping tasks.
Other POWs were sent to nearby farms and factories to provide civilian labor. None were allowed to engage in activities that directly benefitted the war effort. However, with so many young men serving in the armed forces, America was in great need of civilian laborers.
In September of 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allied forces and the POWs at Camp Atterbury were released. Rather than go home, many were moved to labor battalions directly supported the war effort at the direction of Italy’s leadership. Soon after the Italians left Camp Atterbury, German POWs arrived to take their place. Following the invasion of Normandy in June of 1944, the numbers of POWs at Camp Atterbury soared. Many of these men would remain at the camp for the next two years.
In the meantime, the German POWs worked inside and outside the camp, much like the Italians before them. Initially, POWs were only allowed to travel for work within a 25-mile radius to approved civilian factories and farms. However, with the critical labor shortage, the government eventually lifted this restriction. The Italian and German POWs that left the camp to work for Indiana factories and farms harvested crops that would have otherwise gone unpicked, and preserved and packed the produce, so it could be eaten by American families.
When the War Manpower Commission lifted the 25-mile restriction, the Army set up satellite POW camps throughout the country to move laborers closer to their job sites. Camp Atterbury supported several satellite camps across Indiana. In Windfall, Indiana, when approximately 750 German POWs arrived along with 100 guards in August of 1944, the town’s population doubled overnight. The POWs provided critical labor at a nearby food processing plant. In Austin, workers cooked tomatoes and packed canned produce.
POWs employed outside the camp received wages in the form of script for their efforts. Farms and factories employing these workers paid the US Treasury and War Department, which in turn paid the POWs the equivalent of 10 cents an hour, up to 80 cents a day. The script could be redeemed for goods at the Camp Atterbury canteen. POWs employed inside the camp likewise received a small script payment for their labor.
Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. Slowly, in the months following their surrender, German POWs across the country were released. The last German POWs left Camp Atterbury in June of 1946. The POW encampment was subsequently dismantled.
Camp Atterbury and its hospital were deactivated in December of 1946. Both would later be reactivated by the US Army during the Korean War. In 1968, the Army once again deactivated the camp, this time transferring control to the Indiana National Guard. Today, it serves as a training facility. A large acreage of woods and natural resources not utilized by the National Guard are leased to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Johnson County Parks Department.
Between 1943 and 1946, about 15,000 POWs passed through Camp Atterbury. The men provided essential civilian labor to farms and factories throughout Indiana. Today, virtually nothing remains of the POW camp that once stood on the site. The Chapel on the Meadow is the only exception. It has been restored and is now a popular tourist destination. The camp also has an outdoor veteran’s memorial and an indoor museum located at the Camp Atterbury Welcome Center.