The Prisoners of War Who Weren’t Supposed to be There: POWs in Camp Adair

During fall term 2023 Dr. Kara Ritzheimer’s History 310 (Historian’s Craft) students researched and wrote blog posts about OSU during WWII. The sources they consulted are listed at the end of each post. Students wrote on a variety of topics and we hope you appreciate their contributions as much as the staff at SCARC does!

Blog post written by Quinn Wright.

William Robbins wrote an extensive, chronological study of Oregon State University (known as Oregon State College (OSC) prior to the 1960s). In his study, he dedicated a full chapter to OSC during the Second World War. In this chapter, he covered Camp Adair, a military base located at the intersection of Highway 99 and a railroad line, on flat, open land about eight miles north of Corvallis. Robbins states that Camp Adair held several prisoners of war from 1944 to 1946, and then states that “not many locals knew about these prisoners.”[1] But why not? It was no secret that the US was holding POWs; the United States Army even advertised it in Camp Adair’s official newspaper, the Camp Adair Sentry.[2] The article “203 POW Camps,”, initially published in Washington D.C. and republished in the Camp Adair Sentry,[3] implies the number of prisoners the armed forces had captured, particularly in Europe, was a point of pride for the American people. The high number of POWs captured suggested that to the American people that America was winning the war. However, because these prisoners were perceived as enemies, they likely weren’t openly welcome in populated areas. However, if that were the case, why choose Camp Adair, a site so close to civilians? Additionally, the site was not built to be a prison. A likely reason for the secrecy was that those prisoners should not have been there and were only placed in Camp Adair out of necessity.

Images from the Camp Adair Sentry. Although it is known that POWs were present at Camp Adair, the Sentry attempts to “quash” these rumors, despite their truth. “No War Prisoners Here, NSC Reports,” Camp Adair Sentry, April 28, 1944, 3, University of Oregon Historic Oregon Newspapers Collection,

The first piece of evidence that Camp Adair wasn’t an ideal camp to hold POWs is its location. Camp Adair, or Adair Village as it is known today, is surrounded by forest vegetation and farmland.[4] This was even more true in the 1940s than it is now. In fact, OSU’s College of Forestry is using the forests to test old-growth management techniques because they are so old.[5] This is all to say that Camp Adair would not be the best place to hold prisoners who might try to escape into the obscuring forest, or into a local civilian neighborhood. While POW Willi Gross states that gates, fences and guards were present at Camp Adair, they spent ample time working in and around farmland protected only by guards.[6] Escaped POWs were known to happen from time to time in both Allied and Axis camps.[7]

The second piece of substantial evidence is the extensive use of POW labor on local farmland to help with harvesting and planting. First-hand accounts from POWs talk about this farm work. Willi Gross recounted the story of his transfer from other POW camps, in much more open, arid parts of the US. Willi Gross was a German POW captured by British soldiers along the North African front. He was transported to the United States, and held and transported to several different POW camps throughout the United States before being sent to Camp Adair. Strangely, a good amount of Gross’ retelling is spent reminiscing about how similar Oregon is to Germany. Additionally, he befriended a guard at Camp Adair with whom he reconnected with after the war had ended and he had been released. In his account, Gross recounted his arrival in Camp Adair and explains how he worked on nearby farms, helping to harvest crops in the area. For example, Gross remembers cutting grass for hay bales and harvesting bean crops.[8] This is corroborated by another Camp Adair Sentry article, printed in May 1943, entitled “Axis War Prisoners May Work for Allies.” This article states that Axis POWs will be working as farm laborers throughout Allied territories for the remainder of the war.[9]

The third major piece of evidence demonstrating the likelihood that Camp Adair housed POWs comes from the final Camp Adair Sentry article paper entitled “No War Prisoners Here, NSC Reports.”[10] The article continues that the Ninth Service Command (NSC) ”quashed [rumors]…via Associated Press wire reports from Salt Lake City.”[11] It’s clear from the wording of the article “current rumors about using a portion of Camp Adair for war prisoners have been quashed,” that enough.[12] There was fabricated evidence either from the newspaper, or the Associated Press which corroborated the lie that there were no POWs in Camp Adair.

The POWs in Camp Adair were there out of necessity. There were certainly other camps that would be more well suited as prisons than Camp Adair. However, because of Gross’ account, there is proof POWs were in Adair. POWs were kept in Camp Adair because farmers needed all hands-on-deck for the war effort. With the number of able-bodied men deployed across seas, whether because they had volunteered or had been drafted, there were few left over to harvest crops. Additionally, OSC coordinated volunteer harvesting groups, which included apple picking and harvesting sugar beets. However, despite their limited supply of labor, the OSC board voted that “women would not be allowed to join in the apple picking project.”[13] Robbins mentions this in his book, but doesn’t speculate the reasoning. Whatever it may be, if there were too few men to harvest local crops and women weren’t allowed to join the effort, the fact remains that labor was scarce. For the US military, the answer may have been simple. There weren’t enough workers for these valuable farms that produced necessary crops such as sugar beets and grass for feeding livestock, and they had a surplus of able-bodied men (POWs) at their disposal.

Image of Camp Adair mess hall in 2023. Originally built with the initial construction of the camp in 1942 (Robbins, A People’s School, p 159). Now currently resides roughly at the center of town, and is neighbored by the local elementary and high schools. Currently used as a community center. Photo credit: the author. 

I believe that the Camp Adair administrators were so secretive about POWs being housed there because Camp Adair was not a suitable prison. Locals who wouldn’t be using POW labor would not have been happy about their new neighbors, the landscape itself did not lend itself to the task, and Camp Adair simply wasn’t built as a secure facility, but rather as a training ground. This meant that the area produced more food than its local workers could reasonably harvest with the equipment on-hand, because the war had taken so many of its able-bodied workers. As far as the US government perceived the issue, they were solving the problem by positively utilizing another problem. That being, the lack of workers could be solved with the surplus of prisoners they were controlling. This created a win-win situation, besides the necessary secrecy.

The use of Prisoners of War as laborers was not unprecedented. Allied forces used Italian and German POWs to harvest crops throughout the war.[14] Germany used loopholes in the Geneva Convention to classify POWs, particularly those from Poland, as “civilian guest workers” so that the former soldiers would become, in essence, slaves.[15] POWs were kept in good health by the US and Britain because of a sort of “status quo” of soldiers. The British and German military had shown that poor treatment of the enemy’s POWs would result in an equal or even greater mistreatment of their own soldiers held captive by enemy forces. The Axis and Ally stance of mutually assured destruction of POWs both kept POWs safe and put them in danger. If you don’t keep our soldiers well, we’ll reciprocate in kind.[16] This status quo created by both Axis and Ally leaders is why the US government felt so comfortable using POWs as labor in Camp Adair. They were simply returning in kind the treatment which had befallen their own soldiers. This included being well fed, and receiving medical treatment.

William Robbins’ statement that “few locals knew about the Prisoners of War” makes a lot more sense in the present tense than it does in the past tense.[17] Few locals know about the area’s history with POWs, but knowledge and cooperation were a requirement to have POWs in Camp Adair. POWs were only present in the area because they were a necessity for the war effort and to get the greater population through a time of rationing. There is a precedent for this being the case brought up by historian Jake Spidle, Jr..  Spidle argues in his article ”Axis Prisoners of War in the United States,” that the number of people knowledgeable about POWs held in the US is only going to shrink over time. Spidle was able to find several farmers that used POWs during the war. ”With a bit of luck,” he says, ”a diligent researcher may find them.”[18] That may have been true in 1975, but it is certainly a rare find in 2023. Even so, with the information gathered between several archives, an understanding of the past with greater clarity can be produced.

[1] William Robbins, A People’s School: A History of Oregon State University (Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2017), 160.

[2] “203 POW Camps,” Camp Adair Sentry, June 9, 1944, 7, University of Oregon Historic Oregon Newspapers Collection,

[3] The article itself has the subheading “Washington D.C. (ALNS).” This acronym doesn’t seem to be associated with any US press agency, or POW associated group. The assumption made in this article is that this was published in multiple army-run newspapers like the Camp Adair Sentry throughout the United States. ALNS may be a typo, or an acronym that was rarely, if ever used.

[4] The author is currently a resident of the area and is familiar with the buildings in town.

[5] John Sessions, lecture series, “OSU’s Old Growth Forests,” Sustainable Forests, Oregon State University, 2022.

[6] “Memories of Sergeant Willi Gross,” Oregon State University Special Collections & Archive Research Center (hereafter SCARC), Memorabilia Collection: Business and Technology, School of 1923-2000  — Campus Fires. 1898-2002. Box 32. SC, Folder “MC Calvert, Leonard J.”

[7] Jake W. Spidle, Jr., ”Axis Prisoners of War in the United States, 1942-1946: A Bibliographical Essay,” in Military

Affairs 39, no. 2 (1975): 64.

[8] “Memories of Sergeant Willi Gross.”

[9] “Axis War Prisoners May Work for Allies,” Camp Adair Sentry, May 27, 1943, 10, University of Oregon Historic Oregon Newspapers Collection,

[10] “No War Prisoners Here, NSC Reports.”.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Robbins, A People’s School, 156.

[14] S. P. MacKenzie, “The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II,” The Journal of Modern History 66, no. 3 (1994): 489.

[15] Ibid, 500-501.

[16] Ibid, 489.

[17] Robbins, A People’s School, 160.

[18] Spidle Jr, Military Affairs, 64.

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