U.S. Route 61, which stretches from Minnesota to Louisiana, cuts through 76 miles of rural eastern Arkansas along the Mississippi River. Just north of the small town of Bassett, visible from Arkansas’ Great River Road, stand the remains of a gate which marked the entrance to a POW camp during World War II.
Eastern Arkansas was the site for numerous POW camps, built to house German and Italian prisoners. The American government, while initially resistant to the idea of bringing over POWs, decided that keeping the enemy on home soil would be more efficient (and profitable) than housing them in Europe.
After the surrender of the Wehrmacht in North Africa, soldiers from the Afrika Korps spent the rest of the war picking cotton. It’s estimated that about 23,000 prisoners ended up in camps in eastern Arkansas.
According to residents who lived in the area at the time, the camp outside of Bassett was set up on the site of a Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) camp site. About 300 men were housed at the site. Prisoners lived in a converted community center while the guards stayed in nearby lodging.
In accordance to the Geneva Convention, the Germans were paid to pick cotton (about 80 cents a day). With most able-bodied men conscripted into the armed forces, the prisoners kept the agriculture industry going. The Germans were deliberately isolated from most of the American civilian population during the war, but nevertheless, friendships did form. The University of Arkansas has copies of numerous letters from former POWs sent to residents after the war
Scant evidence remains of the camps today. During the war, the U.S. military kept the locations of these installations quiet. Once they were closed in 1946, the land was returned to agricultural use. The concrete walls of the front gate, along with a historical marker, are all that is left of the camp.
Know Before You Go
The Bassett POW camp site lies adjacent to U.S. Route 61, 1 mile north of the Bassett Post Office. The coordinates are 35°32'26.4"N 90°06'51.1"W.