Retro: POWs in the kitchen

In 1945, Duke hired some unusual employees.
October 25, 2018

World War II had an enormous impact on Duke, from the curriculum to the student body, from research to athletics. The campus hosted the Navy V-12 program, training thousands of servicemen. With so many students and local Durham citizens occupied with the war, the campus struggled to manage.

As early as 1942, the lines were long in the West and East Campus unions and there was no one to clean up after basketball games. A Chronicle article from April of that year lamented that “Spring picnickers have become the unsuspecting victims of the labor shortage, since the remaining employees are too busy to do the extra work involved when the Union is asked to supply food for such outings.” To make up for the lack of workers, non-enlisted students helped out in a variety of ways. By 1944, the Woman’s College adopted a plan that had twenty-two “coeds” taking shifts in the East Campus Union. The students pledged to donate their wages to the Red Cross or other charities.

Off campus, similar labor shortages were challenging farmers in harvesting their crops. Some Woman’s College students helped pick cotton, although it may have been more of a lark than serious labor.

By the end of 1944, despite some student help, the university was desperate to hire additional staff for the West Campus dining hall and Duke Hospital. So they turned to a very unusual option, at least from today’s perspective: employment of prisoners of war. They were hardly alone in the practice—other universities and businesses also used this labor source. In Duke’s case, the school took advantage of proximity to Camp Butner, northeast of Durham, which not only trained service members but also held a number of German prisoners of war. At one point, Camp Butner had over 2,500 German POWs housed at its facility. Many of them helped with the tobacco and peanut harvests and in the paper industry. A smaller number worked elsewhere. Beginning in November 1944, Duke requested POWs to work in the West Campus Union (now the Brodhead Center) and the hospital.

Camp Butner took seriously the provisions of the Geneva Convention, which regulated treatment of POWs. Duke administrators had to pledge that “conditions of employment offered by this employer are not less favorable than those for other workers in the same or similar employment at the establishment.” They also had to certify that the wages paid to the POWs was the same that would be paid to regular employees in the same position.

The university arranged to transport the POWs to and from Camp Butner each day. A January 1945 Chronicle article reported that fifteen of these new university laborers worked doing laundry, washing dishes, and cleaning in the hospital, and ten more were tasked with cleaning in the West Campus Union. Their supervisors reported that “the prisoners are excellent workers, very industrious and cheerful and quick to catch on to the work.”

In March 1945, representatives of the university wrote to the state director of Manpower Commission, J.S. Dorton, to advocate that the POW program be sustained. H.C. Mickey of Duke Hospital wrote, “At present the Prisoners of War are doing all of our dish washing, all of our soiled linen sorting, and a large part of our housekeeping. Frankly, without this group of men we would be unable to operate.” Charlie Paul McFeaters, a captain in the V-12 program, also wrote to Dorton: “By personal inspection, I have particularly noted a great definite improvement in the cleanliness and upkeep of this mess [cafeteria] since the crop of German prisoners have been permitted to assist in this mess. If at all possible it is most desirable that the German prisoners be allowed to assist and thus greatly contribute to the success of the Officers’ program here . . ..”

By March 1946, the POW program was winding down, and the Germans were being repatriated to Europe. Treasurer A.S. Brower wrote to Colonel Thomas L. Alexander, who oversaw the Camp Butner POW camp: “The prisoners were available at a time when we were in great distress for employees necessary to operate the dining halls and hospital and were of immeasurable help in bridging this trying period.”

For more information on Camp Butner’s Prisoner of War program, see Robert D. Billinger Jr.’s Nazi POWs in the Tar Heel State (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008).