Douglas POW Camp: #ThisWeekInWYHistory
In the small, sleepy community of Douglas, Wyoming, a solitary building stands alone, occupying a plot of land on the western side of town, just off of Interstate 25.
At a glance, the building is nothing spectacular; stucco has replaced the original asbestos walls and the gable roof has been covered with asphalt shingles. An enclosed porch and notable brick chimney dominate the north end of the building.
But closer inspection reveals that the building is old and utilitarian in nature. The building was made for a purpose, and a small wooden sign placed strategically a few meters to the northwest of the building tells what that purpose was.
“Douglas World War II POW Camp,” the sign reads.
The otherwise ordinary looking building is the last remnant in northeast Wyoming of a time when the Second World War raged across the Atlantic Ocean.
Shortly after the United States entered the front lines in 1941, the United Kingdom had too many POWs, around 50,000 too many, and was experiencing a severe housing shortage.
The Geneva Convention of 1929, signed by 47 world powers, defined the treatment of enemy prisoners and required that Britain provide its POWs with living quarters comparable to its own military forces.
Officers were to be afforded 120 square-feet of living space and enlisted personnel were to be given 40 square-feet of living space.
All POW’s were to be fed the same rations as their captor’s military forces.
In 1942, the U.K. turned to their American compatriots, who had just joined the war effort, for help.
The United States agreed to help, despite having minimal to no experience handling prisoners of war for an extended period of time.
An estimated $50 million was allotted for a POW camp construction program that began in the fall of 1942. Wyoming political leaders, business men, city mayors, and state legislators moved to secure a military installation for the state.
On Jan. 3 1943, Camp Douglas was approved.
Douglas was a good choice for the U.S. Government. Security regulations stated that POW camps could not be constructed within 170 miles of the West and East coasts. Moreover, the camps could not be built near shipyards, munitions plants, or other operations considered vital to the war effort for fear of sabotage.
This meant that the camps needed to be built in isolated and remote locations. The Army Corps of Engineers at the time declared the ideal location be a 350-acre plot of land located within 5 miles from a railroad and at least 500 feet from public roadways.
The 687-acre Douglas site met all security requirements and was also located within 1 mile of the railway.
The camp opened officially on June 2,1942, and saw over 2,000 visitors from several Wyoming counties.
In August 1942, 412 Italian POWs became the first group to inhabit Camp Douglas.
As the majority of working-age American men were across the Atlantic on the front lines, the Italian POWs were put to work in the agricultural industry, harvesting cotton and sugar beets in Wyoming. Prisoners were also put to work in canneries, mills, and other areas posing a low security risk.
Per the Geneva Convention, all POWs who worked were paid for their labor at 80 cents per hour, similar to a private in the U.S. Army.
For two years, the Italian POWs played soccer, learned American cooking, and a few enjoyed pursuits more artistic in nature. Today, six murals depicting epic scenes of cowboys, Native Americans, and the Wild West can still be seen inside the Officer’s Club, the only Camp Douglas building still standing
With the surrender of Italy in 1944, the Italian POWs were sent back to Italy and the camp was closed. But one month later, the camp was reopened with 2000 German POWs on their way to Douglas in October. Their numbers peaked at just over 3,000 by the following summer.
Unlike their Italian counterparts, the German POWs were quite the handful for the guards at Camp Douglas. Die-hard Nazis cut the fence on several occasions, harassed their fellow inmates, and even attempted to circulate Nazi propaganda under the guise of a newspaper.
Several escape attempts were documented at the camp, but all POWs were recovered.
In August 1945, the camp announced the end of POW labor and the prisoners prepared for release. Between November 1945 and Jan 31, 1946, prisoners were gradually released.
In February 1946, Camp Douglas was officially closed.