LOGAN – When 400 scared and homesick German prisoners of war filed into the Cache County Fairgrounds and took up residency, folks in Logan were a little skeptical. Then the numbers grew, said local historian Ken Godfrey. They had as many as 533 German prisoners at one time during 1945. They lived in tents with wood floors. The fairground camp was fairly unique, as other POW camps were old Civilian Conservation Corps camps.
A book written by Allen Kent Powell, Splinters of a Nation, said there were 8,000 prisoners sent to Utah. He said for more than three years German and Italian prisoners worked in the fields and factories across the state.
For the most part, the captured soldiers were taken to the rural areas in Utah to help with agricultural related duties. Many prisoners in Cache Valley worked in the sugar beet fields.
Just like the other seven POW camps in Utah, the 10 acres were surrounded by wire fences and had two guard towers mounted with 30 mm machine guns and high voltage searchlights.
Ken Godfrey, a local historian and author, made a presentation on the Logan POW camp in 2017 when the fairground buildings were being torn down to be replaced with new structures.
“We were taught to be afraid of them,” said Godfrey, who worked in the sugar beet fields as a young man. “My wife was from Ogden and she had a cute little brother with blond hair. One of the POW’s gently picked up the little guy in his arms and looked at the boy like he was thinking of children back home. It was a tender moment.”
Godfrey said the feeling about the German prisoners changed.
“We learned Germans were human beings and they had the same hopes and dreams we did,” he said. “We learned they could be homesick, they enjoyed a good laugh and we were more alike than we were different.”
He said guards watching the POWs were sometimes lax. It seemed there was no real threat from the them, said Godfrey.
“Sometimes, the guards would leave their guns against a tree with prisoners close by,” Godfrey said. “No one really wanted to escape.”
Godfrey said the local POWs faced some negative pressure at the end of the war when stories emerged in the nation’s newspapers of mistreatment of some American soldiers in German prison camps. Those rumors caused anger on the part of some who were less than pleased the POWs were dwelling among them.
After the war, some of the prisoners came back and visited families they worked for in the fields. Other camps reported them coming back to Utah and marrying local girls.
Former Utah State University history professor Ross Peterson said people were a little worried about the German POWs. There were enough Germans in Logan at the time that there was a section of the city called “Little Germany.”
“There were enough people that spoke the language that there wasn’t a lot of bitterness or hatred towards the POWs,” Peterson said. “People accepted it for what it was.”
Most of them were transported from the camps to Cache Valley fields to work in the sugar beet fields.
“The prisoners went to work in the fields during the day so they weren’t around much,” Peterson said. “The prisoners were needed because the local farm workforce was fighting in the war.”
Former Smithfield resident, Richard Nelson, remembered going to Logan with his father and eating with the German POWs. They were in a big building in the fairgrounds in Logan.
“I still have a German blanket stenciled with 1944 on it.”
He said they had PW on the back of their cloths and a “P” on one sleeve and “W” on the other.
“I have memories of a lieutenant that let me ride in a jeep,” Nelson said. “I was six or eight years old when I was riding with him and he drove his jeep into the Smithfield creek.”
He talked of being around the prisoners working in the beets. His father was one of their supervisors.
“One prisoner told my dad he was a good guy, but he hated the work,” Nelson said.
A journal entry by Maxine Anderson, a Smithfield resident, said she was living near the fairgrounds during WWII.
“There was a Prisoner of War encampment in Logan at the fairgrounds. The men were young. Even though we were at war, it was hard to see these young men being held prisoner.
“A lot of townspeople were very bitter and full of hatred for them. The day the war ended we rode down through the camp honking our horn and yelling, and these prisoners were just as jubilant as we were to have an end to this terrible war.”
Anderson passed away in 2013.
The original Home Arts building, built in 1911, was turned into a mess hall for the prisoners. Americans tried to cook the same foods the prisoners had in their home country. Sometimes they were successful, and sometimes they weren’t.
Gina Worthen, who put together a display of the POW camp for the 2017 Cache County Fair, said they found a few things from the camp and had some photographs taken of buildings before they were demolished.
“I don’t want the memories of the POW camp to be lost,” Worthen said. “The POWs were an important part of Logan’s history.”