By 1942 the United States needed places to house German and Italian prisoners. Government officials decided to construct prisoner-of-war camps in rural areas so that the prisoners could work on farms. One camp was located about four miles northwest of Paul. Officially named Camp Rupert, it was known locally as the Paul camp. It consisted of 350 acres enclosed by two fences with guard dogs in between. It included a guard tower and wooden barracks for housing three thousand prisoners. Soldiers from various parts of the United States were assigned as guards at the camp, but Mini-Cassia civilians also worked there. Some guards returned to live in the Mini-Cassia area after the war.
The camp was completed in the fall of 1943, but the first prisoners—about five hundred Italians— did not arrive until May 1944.
In the fall of 1944 German prisoners replaced the Italians. Prison camp workers were amazed to see the Germans marching from the railroad car to the camp in military formation with the “goose step” of the Nazi army. Though some of these prisoners were committed Nazis, others had simply been drafted into the German army. Some looked like teenagers, remembered Esther Whiting. One looked like he was about thirteen or fourteen years old.
Local people described the German prisoners as hard-working and orderly. Near the end of the war Germany was short of food, and many of the German soldiers had their rations reduced. When the German prisoners received their food for the first day, some of them saved it, thinking it was their ration for the entire week.
Most of the prisoners worked in the fields. The Amalgamated Sugar Company and individual farmers contracted with the government for prisoners to work on farms. The farmers paid the government about sixty cents per hour for the prisoners’ labor; the government paid the prisoners eighty cents per day, most of which they received after the war. One Italian prisoner later said he had learned that “P.O.W.” meant “plenty of work.”
A single guard supervised each group of prisoners while they were working. Some guards were strict about enforcing rules, while others looked the other way when farmers conversed with the prisoners and gave them extra food. The prisoners seemed to enjoy talking with and playing with the young children.
“I was about twelve years old and was shooting birds with my .22-caliber rifle near where a group of prisoners was working,” remembered Burley resident Kenneth Hansen. “One of the prisoners came over, talked to me about my gun, and said that he was not allowed to have a real rifle when he was my age. He asked if he could look at it, and I handed it to him. I’ve thought later how dumb that was.” But nothing happened. The prisoner looked at the gun, admired it, and handed it back.
Excerpted from “Cassia County Idaho The Foundation Years” by Kathleen Hedberg and used by permission of its owners.
Kathleen Hedberg is the author of “Cassia County the Foundation Years” and “A Flood Can’t Happen Here”, and she’d love to hear from you. Drop her a note at [email protected].
Copies are available at: Cassia County Museum Corner of Hiland and Main, Burley, ID 83318, 208-678-7172 and Mini-Cassia Chamber of Commerce, 1177 7th Street, Heyburn, ID 83336 at 208-679-4793