When Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki awoke on Waimanalo Beach on Oahu on the morning of Dec. 8, 1941, the exhausted survivor of the sunken midget submarine HA-19 found himself staring at the muzzle of a rifle wielded by a nervous and angry soldier. For Sakamaki the war was over. Now a footnote in history as the first prisoner of war captured by American forces, he would eventually be joined by 415,918 fellow Axis PWs (as Axis POWs were designated during the war) housed in 141 base camps and 319 branch camps scattered throughout the continental United States.
For 17 months, few POWs arrived on American soil. Then in May 1943, with the conquest of Tunisia, about 230,000 German and Italian soldiers entered the POW rolls.
Guarding and caring for POWs was the responsibility of the War Department, which administered the system according to Geneva Convention regulations through the Prisoner of War Division of the Provost Marshall General’s Office. By September 1942, 32 facilities in 17 states capable of housing 78,218 POWs were in various stages of construction or completion, with plans to house an additional 100,000 on the drawing board. For 17 months, few POWs arrived on American soil. Then in May 1943, with the conquest of Tunisia about 230,000 German and Italian soldiers entered the POW rolls.
In April 1943, the total number of Axis POWs in America was 5,007 (2,146 Germans, 2,799 Italians, and 62 Japanese). In May, the number jumped to 36,083. By August it was 130,299, and by December it reached 172,879. With more to come, the Provost Marshall General’s Office established minimum security branch camps utilizing tents and empty Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) barracks and buildings.
Incoming POWs were screened and classified, with high-risk non-cooperatives such as hard-core Nazis, SS, Gestapo, etc., assigned to the maximum security Camp Alva in northwestern Oklahoma. POWs were grouped according to nationality and assigned separate compounds within a camp. Escape attempts were rare — involving less than 2,500 POWs, or less than one percent.
Geneva Convention regulations stipulated POW care had to be comparable to that of the host nation’s troops, and that officers be housed separately from enlisted personnel. Employment of POWs was voluntary for officers and compulsory for enlisted personnel. POWs were paid a prevailing wage based on rank. Enlisted personnel received 80 cents a day, a general almost $130 a month. POWs received their money in the form of scrip that they could use to purchase items at the commissary. Though prohibited from working in war industries, the War Department identified 96 POW labor classifications ranging from administrative clerks to X-ray technicians and assistants. It included such trades as stone masons, carpenters, and teamsters, and projects such as flood control work and road building and maintenance.
The influx of POWs coincided with a labor shortage in the country as a result of conscription and population shifts to communities with large war industries. States with predominately agricultural economies were particularly hard hit. Nebraska had six base camps and 25 branch camps holding about 12,000 POWs. In a post-war interview, Kelly Holthus of York, Neb., recalled as a youth seeing a work group of under a dozen POWs working on a nearby farm. “They stacked hay,” he said. “Worked in the sugar beet fields. Did any chores. There was such a shortage of labor.” He added, “I had the impression the prisoners were happy to be out of the war.”
Outbreaks of indiscipline among German and Italian POWs were dealt with by briefly incarcerating the offender in a jail cell with a restricted diet. Japanese POWs, however, received a different threat: that camp supervisors would write home to the POW’s loved ones. As the Bushido honor code then in force in Japan’s military made surrender a shameful act, the POWs did not want to disgrace relatives by letting them know they were alive. As a result, the mere threat caused the POW to become a model prisoner.
At war’s end, German and Italian POWs were happy to return home. For Japanese POWs, reunions with loved ones aroused mixed emotions. As the first Japanese POW, Kazuo Sakamaki became a symbol. Letters to him ran the gamut. One sympathetic letter stated, “You need not feel ashamed. . . . With a new heart, please work for a reconstruction of our beloved country.” But many letter writers expressed outrage: “I cannot understand how you could return alive. . . . If you are not ashamed of yourself now, please explain how come. If you are ashamed of yourself now, you should commit suicide at once and apologize to the spirits of the heroes who died honorably.”
Sakamaki discovered his POW experience had changed him for the better. Initial feelings of “self-contempt, deep disillusionment, despair and melancholy” evolved into a “desire to learn and yearning for truth … rediscovering myself … and finally, a desire for reconstruction.” Sakamaki stated that the foundation for his transformation was the concept of democracy. “I learned it as a prisoner,” he said. “It was the best education of my life.”