Douglas Selected for POW Camp
In past “Postcards,” we’ve outlined the history of a satellite World War II prisoner of war (POW) camp at Ryan Park in the Snowy Range. After considerable search of the internet – yes, even old time historians are finding the internet useful – this writer discovered the history of the main Italian and German POW camp located near Douglas.
Following is the first “Postcard” concerning the subject.
During 1942, the first year of the war for the United States, only an estimated 2,000 prisoners came to the United States. But overcrowded POW compounds overseas led U.S. military authorities to come up with an American internment program by September of that year. The immediate measures to accommodate over 50,000 POWs held by the British in North Africa included reactivating Civilian Conservation Corps camps; opening unused portions of several major military bases; utilizing such facilities as fairgrounds, race tracks, armories and auditoriums; and setting up “tent cities” in remote areas of the country.
The longer-range $50 million-dollar program of POW camp construction began in the fall of 1942. Security regulations dictated the camps be located in remote and isolated areas. No camps could be built within 170 miles inland from the east and west coasts, nor within a 150-mile-wide zone along the Canadian and Mexican borders. Locations near shipyards, munitions plants and other vital wartime industries were forbidden due to fears of sabotage. The ideal site, according to the Army Corp of Engineers, was an area of 350 acres of level and well-drained land located within five miles of a railroad and 500 feet from any public road.
The presence of a large POW camp would provide an economic boon to a state and the nearby communities so it’s no surprise that “Chambers of Commerce, business men, commerce departments, city mayors and the state’s political leaders sought to secure the establishment of military installations” in Wyoming, according to historian T. A. Larson. These lobbying efforts were rewarded with construction of a new air base at Casper, a large expansion at Cheyenne’s Fort F.E. Warren and the selection of a site on the outskirts of the small town of Douglas as the location for a POW camp.
The Douglas site met the defense regulations. Located in Converse County within one mile of a rail line that passed through downtown Douglas, the 687-acre site sat above the banks of the North Platte River. The federal government acquired the land through condemnation, and a legal battle ensued in which the defendants were eventually awarded more money for their land than the government had initially proposed. Government surveyors and engineers arrived in Douglas in December 1942, fueling rumors of the proposed POW camp, although the official announcement did not come until January 1943.
Peter Kiewit and Sons of Omaha, Neb. came in with the low bid, and the company set up operations in Douglas by February. Four hundred to 500 construction workers used the 4-H buildings on the state fairgrounds as dorms and a dining hall. The government contract specified the buildings be completed within 120 days. Kiewit and Sons finished the job in 95 days.
The officer’s quarters, clubhouse and softball field were located at the north main entrance to the camp…but, then, that’s more chatter for another “Postcard.”