A man wearing a German army uniform spoke to a gathering of other American, German, and Italian soldiers freezing in the Kansas wind. In front of him were the graves of 62 German soldiers, draped in the German flag. Alongside the German graves were the interred remains of 11 Italian prisoners of war.
Each year, American, Italian, and German soldiers honor their war dead at the Fort Riley Cemetery. The German and Italian soldiers who died here died from illness or accident.
It was cold, with a hard north wind at the cemetery, making it difficult for the American honor guard preparing for the 21-gun salute to stay at attention. Four German and Italian soldiers were close by holding wreaths.
Why hold these ceremonies at Fort Riley? The Second World War ended more than sixty years ago, and Fort Riley is many miles from the battlegrounds. According to the museum curator at Fort Riley, Robert Smith, the answer might lie in the respect that grew between the American guards and their charges. This respect still shows in the ceremony attended by both German and Italian officers today.
Initially the German POW’s were cautious of their American captors; the first mass of prisoners was captured when the Allies destroyed the German Afrika Korps in 1943, The Wichita Eagle reports.
Eventually, 450,000 German and 51,000 Italian soldiers were held in American POW camps, with 3,500 of those sent to Fort Riley in 1943.
For most of the Germans coming to America was a culture shock. First was the vastness of the United States along with the abundance of everything. The Germans were amazed during the entire train ride from the eastern ports to their ultimate destination at Fort Riley. The Germans could not fathom the size of the nation as it passed by their railcars, with some believing that they were being driven back and forth in order to confuse and disorientate the Germans to prevent any idea of escape.
While these German’s were friendly with their guards and the local Kansas farmers, with so many POW’s, it was inevitable that a few would die from mostly natural causes. However, Fourteen German soldiers were executed at Fort Leavenworth in 1945, for murdering their fellow POW’s and a few hardcore Nazi’s were transferred to a Texas prison.
Most of the POW’s were farmers before the war and many found themselves working in local Kansas farms where they gained most of their appreciation of America and vice versa. The Americans learned that the POW’s were hardworking and polite and the Germans were surprised by how they were treated, and even paid for the work they performed.
At the end of the war, when the POW’s were released, many of the Germans proclaimed that Germany and the United States would never fight each other again.