From Race Track to POW Camp and Back

Just a few miles from my home is a sign that says “P.O.W. Camp Owosso.” The sign is outside of a oval track for car and motorcycle racing.

Being new to this area, this sign caught my interest and I decided to do some research on the camp. Here is what I found.

During World War II, over 6,000 prisoners were housed in Prisoner of War (POW) camps in Michigan. While approximately 1000 were held in the Upper Peninsula, most were housed in the Lower Peninsula. Many camps were held at former Civilian Conservation Corps barracks that were no longer in use.

In Owosso, this racetrack that was not in use because of the war was chosen for a prison camp. Reports of exactly how many prisoners were held here vary between 350 and 1000. After the war the Germans were returned to their home and the administrative records were deposed of in the 1950s.

The men were housed six to a tent and the area was surrounded by a fence. In the winter time they were moved to the barracks at Fort Custer.

(picture thanks to Dominic Adams | dadams5@mlive.com)

Due to the draft, the U.S. had a huge labor shortage. The government allowed POWs to be used for labor in nearby farms or businesses. W.R. Roach Canning Company was the principal contractor with the government for prison labor. But many also worked on local farms. The prisoners were paid for their labor with 80 cents per day going to them and the rest of the wage going to the federal government to maintain the camp. The 80 cents was given in canteen checks which could be used for cigarettes, candy and other personal items not provided by the government. Most worked for six days per week at 8 to 10 hour days. While the men did not have to work outside the camp, most preferred that to staying in the camp as there was a little more freedom and most farm families would feed them lunch. The government provided a couple of slices of bread and a piece of meat or cheese for lunch, but the families felt this was not adequate for manual labor and many allowed them to eat the noon meal with their family. This led to friendships between the farm families and the POWs and they remained friends after the war ended.

(National Archives picture “German Prisoners of War at a camp near Owasso, Michigan, being paid with canteen checks by Camp Commander Captain Ohrt.” Dated 8/8/44 – photo by Sgt. S.L. Hertel.)

Reports from that time indicate that the men were well behaved and there was little attempt to escape. But then where would they go? Thousands of miles from home over an ocean and with their German accent, they would quickly have been captured.

However, at Camp Owosso there was an escape attempt that included two local girls. In July, 1944 two local girls helped two men escape from the Canning Compay where they were working. They spent the night in the woods before being captured by authorities.

The girls probably did not realize the consequences of their actions. Found guilty of conspiracy, Kitty Case received one year and three months and Shielry Druce was sentenced to one year and a day.

The girls’ motive for helping the men was not given but one of the girls testified that she was in love with one of the men. This attempted escape brought lots of new attention to the local county. You can read a novel based on this story. Cottonwood Summer by Gary Slaughter.

The prisoners were also heroes to one family. Eva Worthington had just come home for giving birth to her tenth child when her house caught on fire. Her husband, superintendent of the Roach Canning Factory, was at work. Several prisoners saw the fire, hurried in and wrapped Mrs. Worthington in a mattress and carried her to safety.

When the war ended the men were returned to their homes, but some came back and settled in the US, at least one man marrying an American young lady he had met while working outside the camp.

Today the racetrack once again welcomes family and racers to enjoy the sport. Owosso Speedway is one of the premiere short tracks in the state of Michigan featuring constant side by side action and fun for the whole family.

6 thoughts on “From Race Track to POW Camp and Back

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