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Nebraska Historical Markers - Atlanta Prisoner of War Camp

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There were a lot of Germans held in the middle of nowhere.

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What remains of Camp Atlanta

My initial thought upon seeing this historical marker was “Why did they name it ‘Atlanta’?”

Turns out, there’s a village in Nebraska named ‘Atlanta’. I have never heard of Atlanta, Nebraska, but then I suppose most of the rest of the state has never heard of Stockville, either.

Marker Text

During World War II, a prisoner-of-war internment camp was located directly north of here. The camp had its beginning in a request by the Holdrege New Industries Committee for a federal conscientious-objector camp to help relieve the severe war-time farm labor shortage. Instead, a prisoner-or-war camp was built. Planning for the camp began in June, 1943. By November, construction had been completed on approximately seventy buildings and seven miles of concrete road. Guard personnel were awaiting the arrival of prisoners. The camp contained three prison compounds, which held a total of 3,000 men.

The Atlanta camp also administered smaller branch internment camps in Nebraska. The prisoners at Atlanta were German soldiers captured in the North Africa and Italian campaign. Some 600 military and 130 civilian personnel provided security and maintenance. One prisoner reportedly escaped but returned to the camp voluntarily. The prisoners-of-war were a valuable source of farm labor in the area until the camp was phased out in 1945-46. Material removed from the site provided lumber for postwar constructed and concrete rip-rap for Tri-County irrigation ditches.

Location

Grand Army of the Republic Hwy, Atlanta, Phelps County, NebraskaView this marker’s location 40.377790, -99.46053

Commentary

What the marker doesn’t say is that Nebraskans were initially told that the camp would house conscientious objectors - people who for reasons of conscience objects to complying with a particular requirement, especially serving in the armed forces. I was unaware that there were camps for COs. My impression was that they served, but refused to carry weapons and typically served as medics, ala the movie “Hacksaw Ridge”.

I was wrong. There were CO camps, apparently created to stymy the anti-war movement. Here’s an excerpt from an interview from 1974 from a man named Igal Rodenko, regarding his experience in one such camp:

https://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/B-0010/excerpts/excerpt_3931.html

As we got deeper into the war, we began to realize - we being a very small number of less church types in the CO camps - that the camps were set up not because the government values conscience and respects it, but were set up because the government recognizes that the CO’s were a bunch of troublemakers and dissidents, and even if they could force them into the army, they would be more trouble than they were worth, and the camp system was a means of getting us out of circulation.

There’s much more to the interview - you can check the link.

Back to Atlanta.

So, you’re in the middle of a war. You have POWs. Where to put them? It would be best if you could put them somewhere where they cannot make trouble, and if they escaped, cannot disrupt your war effort. You have an entire country that’s mobilized for war, and sent thousands upon thousands of what were your workforce into battle in foreign lands.

Where else to put them but the middle of nowhere! Nebraska!

My favorite comment from the Nebraska Historical Society’s commentary on this marker:

Camp leaders boasted that no one ever escaped from Atlanta, but in fact a few did; however, they were all found or returned voluntarily. On one occasion, five prisoners escaped but were found by two teenage farm boys and returned to custody. The soldiers estimated that it was only 175 miles to San Francisco and 200 miles to New York and that they could find a boat at either location to take them home. They were amazed to find out that America was in fact ten times bigger than they thought.

Hence, why they brought them to the middle of nowhere.

One of our readers suggested I purchase the book, “The Complete Roadside Guide To Nebraska”, by Alan Boye, which I did. I contains the following passage about Atlanta, Nebraska:

Atlanta is and always has been a temperance town, never having had a saloon serving the demon run, or Bud. The town’s highest population has been 300, which has nothing to do with the fact there are no saloons.

Perhaps this is why I’d never heard of Atlanta. No chance I was stopping there.

30 minute PBS Special

This looks like it was shot in the early to mid 60s. Interesting if for no other reason that you’re going to watch an old PBS Special.

Book - Nebraska POW Camps: A History of World War II Prisoners in the Heartland

By Melissa Amateis Marsh. It has a decent rating at Goodreads.

Map Of POW Camps Across Nebraska

From a web site that details Air Crashes across Nebraska, something we’ll cover later.

Atlanta, Nebraska

Official information about the town itself.

Blog post From 2010

This is interesting because it shows some paintings of that era housing in the Nebraska Prairie Museum in Holdrege. A passage:

A highlight was the Thomas F. Naegele art gallery, In the Eye of the Storm, (housed in the museum) which tells the story of those years, which he witnessed, in paintings. I’ll share some pictures of his paintings to give you a feeling for the German POW Camp in Atlanta, NE. There are 53 paintings in the collection.

One of the paintings includes this panel:

Back to the Soviet Union goes a coachful of Russian natives in December, 1945. Anthony Eden had given Stalin his word that all Russians captured in German uniforms would be repatriated ahead of all others. Looking like doomed men, wearing simulated Russian style caps, they silently climb about a special railroad coach at Camp Atlanta. [According to British witnesses, these men were shot as traitors in a dockside warehouse immediately following debarkation at Odessa.]