By the end of World War II, 425,000 German, Italian, and Japanese prisoners of war (POWs) were being held in the United States under the supervision of the Provost Marshal General’s office. The Geneva Convention and War Department directives had established policies for treatment to which United States’ officials observed strict adherence in hopes that American POWs overseas would be treated as humanely.
Until the spring of 1943, the US held only a few thousand Axis POWS, but this changed when the Allies successfully resolved the North African campaign in May, 1943. By September, 115,000 German and Italian POWs were sent to the United States including Rommel’s Afrika Korps, known as the most disciplined soldiers and ardent Nazis.
During WWII, South Carolina maintained twenty camps in seventeen counties, housing between 8-11,000 German (and to a lesser extent, Italian) prisoners of war. Most lived in small camps of about 300 men and cut pulpwood or worked on farms.
This was not the first time South Carolina had housed POWs. During WWI, small contingents of seamen and enemy aliens were confined at Camp Sevier (Greenville), Camp Wadsworth (Spartanburg), and Camp Jackson (Columbia).
American farmers were hit by a labor shortage during WWII. New war industry jobs paid more than farmers could afford to offer, and many young men were away fighting. In South Carolina, POW labor was used to harvest labor-intensive cash crops such as peanuts, cotton, and peaches.
Working conditions were generally good, but not necessarily easy. Farm labor was better than working in the timber industry, as the timber industry was more physically demanding and involved achieving strict production quotas. Regulations stated that employers were to maintain minimum contact with the POWs, but prisoners’ productivity was rewarded with afternoon breaks and substantial meals.
Recreation helped to combat boredom. Soccer fields, gardens, and reading rooms were created by prisoners. Plays, art exhibits and variety shows were put on and some camps constructed theaters for prisoner productions and movies. Public reaction evolved from curiosity about the prisoners to resentment and accusations of “coddling” the prisoners. After the war, it was revealed that providing privileges to the POWS was, in part, an attempt to re-educate and democratize the prisoners in order to combat rising Nazism in the camps, and also, postwar Germany.
West Ashley Camp Controversy
A chimney built by German prisoners of war during World War II has become a thorn in the side for one West Ashley Jewish family. The Pearlstine’s, who have deep roots in Charleston, bought the empty lot 20 years ago as it adjoins their land. Mary Ann Pearlstine Aberman and some of her relatives currently own the property on Colony Drive off Highway 61.
The fireplace, chimney, and a concrete slab are all that remains of a West Ashley POW camp clubhouse built by prisoners. The rest of the camp was torn down after the war, but for a time the clubhouse was used for supper clubs and Boy Scout meetings.
The Abermans wanted the chimney removed when they discovered its origin and received a permit for demolition from the county. When preservationists wanted to save the chimney, the Abermans proposed to give it to the group – and even chip in $1,000 to pay moving costs. The cost to move the chimney proved prohibitive, but by then the property was annexed into the city and the demolition permit void.
City planning officials heard about the prison camp relic and proposed a “landmark overlay zone” to protect the chimney. If City Council approves the landmark designation, the Pearlstines will have to preserve the chimney unless granted special permission to demolish it.