Rebuilding the Network: Interpretation of World War II Prisoner-of-War Camps in the United States

Rebecca C. Salgado

Rebuilding the Network: Interpretation of World War II Prisoner-of-War Camps in the United States
Salgado, Rebecca C.
Thesis Advisor(s):
Williams, Jessica Lee
Master's theses
Historic Preservation
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M.S., Columbia University.
World War II was one of the most defining events of the twentieth century, but few American citizens are aware that a crucial element of our part in the war—the care and containment of foreign prisoners of war—took place on the home front, in hundreds of camps located in almost every state. The U.S. military processed, transported, housed, fed, and provided labor more than 400,000 POWs from Germany, Italy, and Japan between 1942 and 1947, requiring the creation of a massive network unlike any ever seen in the United States before or since. The United States followed the 1929 Geneva Convention in its handling of these prisoners, which stipulated that the POWs had to be treated humanely and with respect. After the war ended and the prisoners went back home, the government dismantled many of the remaining camps and sold their buildings for parts. Some structures from the camps remained in use for decades—repurposed as offices, returning veterans' housing, and even Girl Scout camps—their original context eventually forgotten. With each passing year, the number of people who had a direct experience with the prisoner-of-war camp network becomes smaller and smaller, and since younger generations for the most part have no knowledge of it, the network's story could easily fade from national memory. Sixty years have passed since the POWs of World War II occupied the camps scattered around the country, but traces of these sites remain. Hundreds of sites have some sort of acknowledgment of the camps—from the more-common historical markers to foundation remnants to the occasional prisoner-of-war camp museum—but their story is still unknown to most people. In addition, much of the existing interpretation of the prisoner-of-war camp network is removed from the actual sites of the camps, even when physical remnants exist nearby. This thesis analyzes the existing POW camp sites and proposes an interpretive plan for them based on the creation of a national network of camps and the incorporation of the remaining site elements into interpretation whenever possible. The remaining POW camp sites would have a better chance of being preserved if more people learned about their fascinating history, and this thesis argues that the best chance of making this possible is to strengthen the individual sites by connecting them to each other and by making sure each site shares the story of the whole camp network. This thesis also argues that the remaining physical sites of the network should be preserved in addition to the story of their network, as they are the strongest links to this network and can serve as potent reminders of the thousands of structures that used to exist all over the country. The World War II prisoner-of-war camps and the people who occupied them were part of a complex, surprising network whose history deserves to be shared with future generations through the sites and stories that remain today throughout the United States.
American history
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