During World War II, Camp Ruston was one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the United States. At its peak in October, 1943, the camp held 4,315 prisoners. The camp was built by the local T.L. James Company on 770 acres about seven miles northwest of Ruston, Louisiana in 1942.
From June 1943 to June 1946, the camp served as one of more than 500 prisoner of war camps in the United States. The first 300 men, from Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps, arrived in August 1943. In 1944, the captured officers and crew of a German U-Boat were sent to the camp and kept in isolation in a restricted area in order to prevent them from communicating to the enemy that secret German naval codes had fallen into Allied hands.
Those prisoners who were enlisted men were required to work at the camp and for local farms and businesses. They picked cotton, felled timber, built roads, and performed other tasks to help solve the domestic labor shortage caused by the war. They were paid in scrip which they could use in the camp canteen.
During 1944, French, Austrian, Italian, Czech, Polish, Yugoslav, Romanian, and Russian prisoners were also housed in the camp. During their incarceration in Camp Ruston, the prisoners benefited from food, medical care, and physical surroundings which were better than what their countrymen were experiencing at home. The prisoners engaged in athletic and crafts activities and allowed to organize an orchestra, a theater, and a library.
In 1944, the U.S. War Department began a program to educate prisoners of war throughout the United States in academic subjects. One source of books was the library of Louisiana Polytechnic Institute (now Louisiana Tech University).
The Camp Ruston Collection includes the following materials:
- Official maps of the camp and U.S.G.S. aerial surveys of the area.
- Contemporary snapshots of Camp Ruston.
- Books from the camp library, drawings made by prisoners, wood carvings and other artwork and furniture crafted by the prisoners.
- Items unearthed during Tech’s archaeological survey of the site.
- Camp Ruston script, Christmas cards, dinner menus, musical concert programs, athletic equipment, and dinnerware.
- Photographs of staff and prisoners.
- U.S.S. Guadalcanal photographs and memorabilia.
- Copy of the captain’s log of the U-505, courtesy of the National Archives.
Some of these materials have been digitized and are accessible in the Louisiana Digital Library