U.S. has hosted war detainees before, in World War II

None other than Walter Winchell, the radio commentator who opened his show by greeting Americans and “all the ships at sea,” took issue with the treatment of German and Italian prisoners in World War II.

The United States, he said, treated them too well.

One noteworthy case involved a soccer tournament arranged for residents at a prison camp on American soil and the subsequent awarding of what the broadcaster referred to as “a loving cup.”

Over the four years of U.S. military involvement in World War II, more than 400,000 prisoners of war came to the American mainland. At least 15,000 of them came to Missouri, the site of the soccer tournament — at Camp Clark in Vernon County — that so aggrieved Mr. Winchell.

How did these enemies, taken prisoner on the battlefields of North Africa and Europe, end up in the American Midwest?

For one thing, putting them halfway around the world assured they would never rejoin the war effort. For another, it made logistical sense to bring them to a place other than a war zone and supply food and medical needs required by the Geneva Convention.

Finally, with so many Americans serving their country, the nation had a shortage of workers. Prisoners ended up harvesting crops and doing other jobs.

Rightful arguments can be made on the differences between then and now. World War II, as brutal as any war with civilian casualties numbering in the tens of millions, had defined groups of uniformed combatants and generally accepted international rules for handling prisoners.

The current war on terrorism knows no borders and, by its nature, focuses horrors on innocents.

When President Obama took office in 2009, he vowed to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center where suspected terrorists have been held since 2002. Detainees still remain at the facility on the U.S. Navy base in Cuba.

Mr. Obama has said the detention facility serves as a recruitment tool for terrorists. A strategy for closing Guantánamo had expected to be released by the White House last week, but that did not happen.

Opponents said the terrorist attacks in Paris made the arguments for closing the facility less palatable. The president said he still hoped to work with Congress on shutting down the prison.

He noted, however, that the Paris attacks emboldened opponents of his plan to get “worked up around issues that don’t actually make us safer but make for good political sound bites.”

If the objections are political, they are also durable. The main obstacle, in the minds of opponents, has stayed the same: What does the U.S. do with the detainees?

A not-in-my-backyard message sells.

The St. Joseph News-Press reports that members of the Kansas congressional delegation have been adamant that none of the detainees get transferred to the military detention barracks at Fort Leavenworth, about 40 miles south of St. Joseph.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, called it “unfathomable” that the president would propose relocating terror detainees.

“As our nation memorializes those who perished in France, it is the absolute wrong time for President Obama and this administration to be putting forth a plan to relocate Guantánamo Bay detainees to the United States mainland,” he said.

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, also a Republican, told home-state reporters that the president appears determined to move ahead with the Guantánamo closing despite having little congressional support and a shortage of legal backing.

“It seems to me that the president made a commitment here, the minute he became president, that he never had the authority to fulfill,” the Missourian said.

Missouri hosted four main prison camps during World War II, at Nevada, Neosho, Ste. Genevieve and Fort Leonard Wood. It also had at least two dozen branch camps and “boat camps,” their barracks afloat on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

The closest full-fledged camp to St. Joseph stood in Clarinda, Iowa, about 75 miles north.

Camp Clarinda got its start in August 1943 with a $1 million allotment from the War Department.

Rather than resisting the location of this prison camp in their community, members of the city council in Clarinda approved that September an expansion of the town waterworks to accommodate the project, according to an account in the Clarinda Herald-Journal at the time.

By the next year, prisoners fanned out across Page and Fremont counties to detassle corn. Some would be dispatched to Jackson and Ray counties in Missouri to harvest potatoes. They also would head to Nebraska City and Hamburg, Iowa, to help combat flooding and to clean up damage afterward.

The prisoners got 10 cents an hour for their work, paid in coupons good only at the camp canteen. Rumors of escapes outnumbered actual escapes. Greater tensions seemed to arise within the ranks of prisoners, where the most hard-core of German captives sometimes clashed with those having fewer sympathies for the aims of the Nazi Party.

Before Christmas in 1944, a nursery in Shenandoah, Iowa, donated about two dozen trees to Camp Clarinda for decoration during the holidays. The Times-Press newspaper in Bedford, Iowa, about 25 miles north of Maryville, Missouri, carried an article about local citizens who came out to see Italian prisoners work in corn fields, just curious about them.

Not every Iowan fancied the relationships formed between the POWs and residents. An editorial writer in Traer, Iowa, questioned the “good taste” of communities that hosted social events for the farm laborers and even had the prisoners put on programs in schools.

“Let us treat these men well, but not be silly in showering them with hospitality. It does not show much respect for the memory of our own boys,” the editorial read.

Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins, whose Kansas 2nd District includes Fort Leavenworth, introduced legislation that says any executive action taken by President Obama to close the Guantánamo facility and disperse its 107 remaining detainees would fly in the face of the law.

“To close (Guantánamo) would not only be illegal and unconstitutional, but it would also be in direct opposition to our national security needs,” the Republican lawmaker said a statement. “I call on the president to drop his reckless plans ... and focus his attention on better securing our nation.”

Mr. Blunt, who sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, added, in his talk with reporters, that defense authorization legislation, prohibiting the facility closure, and the Paris attacks complicate the president’s aims.

“Events happening in the world make it harder for him to do that,” the Missouri senator said. “I don’t know how the president thinks that on his own he can close a military facility.”