During World War II, UNC employed German prisoners of war in the dining halls. Beginning in 1943, the Navy rented facilities from UNC to operate a Pre-Flight Training School and other training grounds. As part of that arrangement, Lenoir Hall became a dining hall exclusively for Pre-Flight Cadets. Renovations to Lenoir gave it a seating capacity of 1,800. To maximize efficiency, waiters served the meals “family style” as opposed to having the cadets wait in a cafeteria line. Some of those waiters were POWs bussed in from Camp Butner in Granville County, northeast of Durham.
Camp Butner received its first influx of German prisoners in Spring 1944. It would become the largest POW camp in North Carolina with 889 prisoners as of June 1944. While most of the Butner prisoners maintained the military installation, others worked outside the camp for civilian businesses. A report on Camp Butner from April 1945 counted 110 prisoners employed as mess attendants at Duke University and UNC.
There is very little information on these war prisoners in the University Archives. The papers of the Vice President for Finance mentions them twice with respect to the financial arrangement between UNC and the Navy. The Daily Tar Heel, however, offers more information about the German war prisoners and their reception on campus. Barbara Swift, an opinion columnist, observed the prisoners “lying in the grass in front of Lenoir Dining Hall . . . laughing and talking, playing with a pack of campus poodles that happen[ed] by.” She further speculated that “some profound change has come over these prisoners who have seen a tiny part of America.”
Others were more cynical. A student objected to Swift’s “rosy picture of healthy boys,” instead depicting the war prisoners as “arrogant and conceited.” He further argued that “They are not willing to accept or even listen to our beliefs and ideals. They regard us as stupid, lazy Americans.” This small debate in The Daily Tar Heel reveals something about the German war prisoners at UNC. Though they are well hidden in the historical record, the German prisoners were a familiar sight to UNC students. However, students rarely engaged with them. It is unknown whether careful guarding, social taboos, the language barrier, or some combination thereof isolated the prisoners from the students. People who worked in the dining hall clearly had contact with the prisoners, but the archive has no record, that we could find, of those relationships.
“National Defense Navy: Commissioning/Decommissioning, 1943-1946” in Office of the Vice President for Finance of the University of North Carolina (System) Records, University Archives, Wilson Library.
Robert D. Billinger Jr., Nazi POWs in the Tar Heel State, (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008).
Barbara Swift, “They Tell Me,” Daily Tar Heel, 5 August 1944.
“Unknown Writer Insists Nazi’s Arrogant,” Daily Tar Heel, 8 August 1944.
2 thoughts on “German POWs at UNC”
My mother, Araminta Jane Thomas, was a student at UNC during WWII and told us that the prisoners in the dining hall were respectful and appreciative of the opportunities they were given. I always thought it would a great story to hear from some who were here and sent back to Germany.