DOUGLAS, Wyo. — An aerial photograph shows a fading outline of what used to be there, where 180 buildings sat on 687 acres.
Head down the road just off the highway in Douglas, though, and chances are you’ll miss it. Only one building still stands intact, painted the same tan color as all the others built around it years later.
In 1942, the land above the banks of the North Platte River near Douglas was far from most anything, open meadow easily accessible by railroad.
The U.S. military thought it ideal.
Allied prisoner-of-war camps in Europe and North Africa had grown crowded, and the military needed more room to hold those it captured. It turned toward the U.S., and during World War II 155 POW base camps and 511 branch camps were built in the States.
It took 95 days in early 1943 to construct the Douglas base camp, which held 3,011 prisoners at its peak, 1,000 more people than the town itself.
“Most Americans have no idea they existed,” said Sherri Mullinnix, a longtime advocate of the camp’s preservation.
When war ended, nearly all Camp Douglas buildings were scrapped. Businesses, subdivisions, mobile-home parks and a school were built where the camp had been.
Today, the Officers’ Club remains. Preserved on its celotex walls are 16 murals of the West painted by three Italian POWs. Owned by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Officers’ Club is not open to the public on a daily basis, and few get to see the murals.
The Douglas Historic Preservation Commission hopes to change that this year. Legislation to be introduced to the state legislature in February aims to get the camp listed as a State Historic Site, a status that could allow for the creation of an interpretive site and museum, opening the camp to the public for the first time in 70 years.
“It has a fabulous story,” Mullinnix said. “This is a story that hasn’t been told.”
The first 412 Italian prisoners to arrive in Douglas in August 1943 were captured in Tunisia and traveled from New York to Wyoming by train.
In town, people gathered
to watch as the men marched one mile to camp.
One local story claims that a man yelled out to the Italians, asking if they knew where they were.
“Where Tom Mix is from,” an Italian prisoner reportedly replied, referencing the American Western actor.
The isolated Douglas camp fit security regulations set by the military: No camp could be built within 170 miles of the coasts or within 150 miles of the Canadian and Mexican borders. Prisoners couldn’t be kept near shipyards or wartime factories.
The north end of camp contained the officers’ quarters, clubhouse and softball fields. Guard towers and two rows of fence, the inner one electrified, surrounded the rest of camp, including troop barracks, a hospital, three compounds of prisoner barracks, a recreation area, football field, motor pool, heating plant, warehouse and corrals. Army personnel at the camp included 250 enlisted men, a vehicle unit of 150 men, 20 officers and nurses, and a German shepherd canine unit used for patrol.
Camp Douglas was no longer needed after the war.
The county bought the camp hospital, the Community Country Club and the Officers’ Club building. Interstate 25 cut through the land, and by the 1980s, little evidence that a camp had been there remained.
Since the 1990s the Douglas Historic Preservation Commission has worked with the Odd Fellows to protect and maintain the Officers’ Club. They received a grant in the early 2000s to hire a conservator to restore the murals. The site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and artifacts including portraits, landscape paintings and wooden carvings made by the POWs can be found on display at the Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum in Douglas.
James Holloway with GSG Architecture of Casper made a structural analysis of the building in the summer of 2010, finding the building to be in “remarkably good condition,” given that camp buildings were meant to last just five years. The roof, however, needed replacing.
Holloway, an amateur student of World War II history, became fascinated with the murals, the idea that prisoners of war were given the opportunity to be creative.
“It creates a legacy that is bigger than the building itself,” Holloway said. “People left something of themselves.”