World War II Prisoners of War in Charleston
According to the Charleston County Public Library article in a May 2014, 425,000 German, Italian, and Japanese prisoners of war (POWs) were held in the United States under the supervision of the Provost Marshal General’s office at the end of World War II. The Geneva Convention and War Department directives were put in place for treatment in hopes that American POWs overseas would be treated as humanely.
In early 1943, the US held only a few thousand Axis POWS, but this changed with the Allies success in the North African campaign in late Spring of 1943. By September, 115,000 German and Italian POWs were sent to the United States.
South Carolina maintained twenty camps in seventeen counties, housing between 8-11,000 German (and to a lesser extent, Italian) prisoners of war. Most lived in small camps of about 300 men and cut pulpwood or worked on farms. POW labor was used to harvest labor-intensive cash crops such as peanuts, cotton, and peaches. One camp was built in West Ashley. These camps initially caused apprehension and anger on the home front, according to Fritz Hamer, a curator and historian in the University of South Carolina’s library system. “But it became clear that the vast majority of these prisoners were glad to be out of the war,” he said. “They were getting three meals a day, and many liked having a different routine out of the camps.”
The first prisoners at the West Ashley POW camp were Italians who had been captured during the fighting in North Africa. Later, German prisoners arrived. The camp was a modest facility with a few guard towers and wooden administration buildings. The prisoners lived in tents. Some of them worked on local farms for minimal pay or picked up trash on roadsides.
Tony Agresta, a Coast Guard Seaman stationed at the Coast Guard facility in Charleston, related this story to PO William Bleyer in December 2018 in the Coast Guard COMPASS:
“One morning Tony heard servicemen who could speak Italian were being solicited for escorting prisoners at the West Ashley POW camp. Tony had learned some Italian from his father as a kid so he volunteered.
He drew a pistol from the armory, a big, heavy .45 caliber M1911A1.
Agresta said he really hoped he wouldn’t have to use it.
Agresta drove a jeep up to the gate of the prison camp and met the group of prisoners he was to escort.
To Agresta’s surprise, the Italian prisoner who spoke the most English enthusiastically grinned and demanded, “We want to see Betty Gable,” referring to the iconic 40s actress who’s famous pin-up poster had been taken around the world by American servicemen.
Agresta was a bit taken aback but he shrugged and gestured at his jeep saying, “Get in.”
The Italians piled into Agresta’s Jeep and he drove back toward downtown Charleston across the route 17 bridge over the Ashley River. The Coast Guardsman chatted with them and they quickly relaxed. His “prisoners” were clearly delighted to be out of the camp and just as clearly had no desire whatsoever to escape. Like many of their countrymen and even some Germans, they preferred an easy imprisonment in America to fighting what was becoming more and more evident a losing war.
Agresta and his charges made quite an impression in downtown Charleston, drawing odd looks from other servicemen and girls promenading in sundresses. As per their request, he took them to a Betty Gable movie at one of the theaters on King Street. Feeling exuberant afterwards, he took them to one of his favorite restaurants and bought them dinner. When they finally got back to the base, he shook their hands and wished them well.”
“In July 1944 it was reported that several hundred German prisoners went on strike in Charleston and were put on a diet of bread and water until they complied and went back to work. According to the account an ardent Nazi refused to be placed with two anti-Nazis in a separate stockade. The rest of the Charleston camps supported his stand probably because the two anti-Nazis were considered disloyal to the German state.” (The State, July 7, 1944; Scrapbook)
A chimney built by at the West Ashley camp by German POW’s became a major issue for one West Ashley Jewish family. The Pearlstines, who had deep roots in Charleston, bought the empty lot 20 years previously because it adjoined their land. Mary Ann Pearlstine Aberman and some of her relatives owned the property on Colony Drive off Highway 61.
The fireplace, chimney, and a concrete slab are all that remains of a West Ashley POW camp clubhouse built by prisoners. The rest of the camp was torn down after the war.
The Abermans wanted the chimney removed when they discovered its origin and received a permit for demolition from the county. When preservationists wanted to save the chimney, the Abermans proposed to give it to the group – and even chip in $1,000 to pay moving costs. The cost to move the chimney proved prohibitive, but by then the property was annexed into the city and the demolition permit voided.
City planning officials heard about the prison camp relic and proposed a “landmark overlay zone” to protect the chimney. If City Council approved the landmark designation, the Pearlstines will have to preserve the chimney unless granted special permission to demolish it.
City Council debated whether to protect the structure under its zoning laws but voted 8-3 against it. Chimney has been torn down.
- World War II POW Camps in South Carolina; CCPL, May 26, 2014
- A big band coastie and his Italian prisoners go to town in WWII, December 11, 2018
Written by Petty Officer 1st Class William Bleyer, COAST GUARD COMPASS
-For Some, a Relic Stings as a Shrine to Nazism, NYT, by Dan Barry, April 1, 2014
-Last remnant of West Ashley German POW camps torn down; Post & Courier Robert Behre; Nov 18, 2015
- Barbeque, Farming and Friendship: German Prisoners of War and South Carolinians, 1943-1946 Fritz Hamer University of South Carolina - Columbia, [email protected], 1994