- Associated Press - Monday, March 30, 2015

WHITE CITY, Ore. (AP) - When Nazi soldiers arrived in New York City before being shipped to prisoner-of-war camps across America during WWII, they were surprised the city wasn’t a smoking pile of rubble.

German propaganda films had convinced them the bustling metropolis had been destroyed by bombs.

Americans at the Camp White military installation six miles north of Medford had their hands full when 1,600 Nazi POWs arrived by train.

But they took up the challenge, joining in a top-secret mission to re-educate the Nazis in hopes the prisoners could be taught the principles of democracy. From freedom of religion to freedom of the press, many of those principles were foreign - especially to young Germans who had come of age under Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian regime.

“There was an attempt to re-educate Nazi POWs so they could go back to Germany and bring democracy to it,” said Ashland author and historian Joe Peterson. “It was bizarre. That’s the story I want to tell.”

Peterson will share the secrets of the Camp White mission at noon Wednesday at the Medford library and at noon on April 8 at the Ashland library. The free lectures are part of the “Windows in Time” series presented by the Southern Oregon Historical Society with Jackson County Library Services.

Camp White is better known for its role in training thousands of American soldiers for WWII. It was also used to hold POWs, but few knew of the Nazi re-education effort. Today, the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics - often called the Veterans’ Domiciliary or “The Dom” for short - is all that remains of the camp buildings.

America began accepting the Nazi POWs to take some of the burden off its beleaguered ally, Great Britain.

“The British ran out of places to put German soldiers and started shipping them to the U.S.,” Peterson said.

But in American camps, Nazis and non-Nazi prisoners often beat up and killed each other. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt learned of the fighting, she convinced her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, to approve a mission to try and democratize the Nazis, Peterson said.

As signatories to the Geneva Accords regarding the treatment of POWs, Americans, including those at Camp White, walked a fine line when it came to re-educating the Nazis.

“Under the Geneva Accords, you can’t be engaged in brainwashing, let alone torture,” Peterson said. “Americans had a problem. Was it brainwashing if they were trying to de-Nazify the POWs?”

Camp White moved forward with the experiment, sending the prisoners to night classes on democracy and the English language. During the day, the POWs toiled in Rogue Valley orchards, picking fruit in place of the Americans who were off to war, he said.

“They performed a tremendous amount of work for the farmers. In some cases, they became friends,” Peterson said. “They would come home with pies from the farmers and the farmers would buy them new clothes.”

The prisoners were given free postage and could mail letters and postcards back to Germany. They were allowed to have newspaper subscriptions, with many favoring The Oregonian.

“There was some resentment from the civilians of Medford, who thought these guys were being treated too well. The whole country was on rationing,” Peterson said.

At one point, a group of German prisoners was sent to Northern California to help harvest potatoes. Because they could come and go from the fields, they commented they had more freedom than Japanese Americans who were held in an internment camp there, Peterson said.

He said the success of the mission to de-Nazify the POWs remains a subject for debate. The Germans often failed to grasp how to apply democratic principles and didn’t believe America was actually allowing freedom of speech and the press.

On the day America celebrated Victory in Europe day in 1945 to mark Germany’s surrender to the Allies, news of Germany’s defeat was relayed to the Camp White prisoners.

“The Americans were concerned there would be suicides that night. There were no suicides. No one was crying,” Peterson said. “The Americans realized later the Germans didn’t believe it. All news in Germany was propaganda. They believed all news was manipulated. It was the totalitarian mentality.”


Information from: Mail Tribune, https://www.mailtribune.com/

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