Prisoners of War in Montana

Today’s Missoulian carried an article by Perry Backus of the Ravalli Republic on two Bitterroot Valley residents who are compiling information on the German prisoners of war (POWs) who worked on local farms in Montana during the summers of 1944 and 1945.

Montana's Home Front During World War II
Montana’s Home Front During WW II

Finding enough labor to work the sugar beet fields was a recurring nightmare for farmers, sugar companies, and government officials during World War II. At first community volunteers from young to old, augmented by high school and college students, worked to bring in the critical harvest of sugar beets. Later, thousands of Mexican workers were brought to Montana each summer, as well as a few hundred Jamaicans, but the state faced a continual shortage of farm labor throughout the war years. Farmers were relieved during the spring of 1944 when the Federal government announced that as many as 7,000 German prisoners of war would be sent to Montana (actual numbers were probably lower).

Some of the prisoners of war in Montana wound up at the farm owned by Homer and Betty Bailey in the Bitterroot, and their daughter Mary Lyn has been compiling information about the little-known prisoner of war camps. You can read the Ravalli Republic article here. Mary has received numerous responses to the article and is interested in hearing from anyone who has memories or knowledge of the German prisoner of war camps.

Typically, temporary camps for the prisoners were built at sugar beet refineries and on local farms. Many of the camps were built for 250 prisoners, with two American officers and 30 enlisted men to guard them. Usually these were tent camps, surrounded by barbed wire fences with guard towers and searchlights. The farmers and sugar beet companies were responsible for constructing the camps. Many of the Germans had served with the Afrika Corps in North Africa before being captured. They received a voucher for 80 cents per day that could be used to purchase personal items. They could work no more than eight hours per day, excluding breaks, meals, and transportation, and were accompanied everywhere by armed guards. Local residents were not supposed to speak to the prisoners. Wheat farmers also used prisoners, and when the 1945 beet harvest was complete, 250 Germans were sent to the Bitterroot to pick apples. A small number of Italian prisoners worked near Billings, and both Italian and Japanese detainees at Fort Missoula also helped with the sugar and apple harvest. Marvin Costello of Stevensville, 14 years old at the time, remembered “The prisoners all seemed so young, not much older than me…They acted like they were all pleased to be safe as POWs after what they had probably been exposed to in the war.”

Mary Lyn would like to organize a gathering to bring together those who remember the Germans prisoners. She can be contacted at 406-360-6279 or You can also leave a comment here.

Montana's Home Front During World War II
Montana’s Home Front During WW II

2 thoughts on “Prisoners of War in Montana”

  1. Very much enjoyed the article on German POWs. I was but 5 or 6 years old on a farm in Fort Shaw when they were brought to our farm to thin beets. My mother would fix hot meals for them and cool drinks later in the day where they would come into our shelter belt area for the shade. We found them to be great conversationalists and were not the least concerned for our safety as the guard was usually fast asleep in the bus. I still have a painting given my family by one of the prisoners as a gift; a painting he somehow managed to create from a piece of canvas dam from our irrigation. I’m not sure the painting has either a biblical or greek mythical theme but I enjoy it simply because of the memory. I recall that one of the boys had been in a tank and when exposing his head was shot where a bullet entered his cheek on one side – taking out teeth and exiting the other cheek.
    Our family name is ‘Schenk’ so they had a good time with us teasing us of our heritage; which we said was Swiss. One prisoner responded, “Like hell, you are German whether you like it or not.” Dad laughed and said, “Well actually, we’re American.”

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your memories of the German POWs at Fort Shaw. I’ve heard from several people who met the POWs when they were young and they are very similar to yours.

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