By 1944, the chicken men of the Delmarva Peninsula were in dire need of help. This mishmashed area—comprised by bits of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia—had been America's chicken production capital since the 1920s, making a feathered fortune off of sending birds to New York, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. After the United States entered World War II, government austerity measures rationed red meat in 1942 but chicken was still fair game for the eating public. Demand exploded and chicken production in Delmarva amped up accordingly. At the start of the war, Delmarvans were producing 77 million birds a year; by 1942, that number had grown to 102 million.
Growing all of these chickens, however, was a very labor-intensive process. Chicken houses needed to be built, feed needed to be hauled and distributed, and the birds needed to be slaughtered, processed, and shipped—tasks typically completed by young and able-bodied men. The problem during the war was that the government had shipped most of them off to fight abroad.
To make matters worse for Delmarva, while at the start of the conflict the government firmly proclaimed "armies don't eat chicken," in 1943 the military declared that now "chicken is for fighters first." In July of that year, the National Guard invaded the Peninsula and immediately began seizing chickens off of trucks headed out of Delmarva. The occupation didn't last long, but from that point forward all chickens produced by the region's farmers went straight to Uncle Sam.
Lacking a work force and under pressure from the government to produce ever more pounds of poultry, Delmarva's hen men turned to one of the only options left to them: using German Prisoners of War.
By 1942, Great Britain had run out of space for the tens of thousands of Axis soldiers captured in battle and asked the United States for help. By the end of the war, more than 400,000 enemy prisoners had been sent to America, housed in over five hundred Prisoner of War camps scattered throughout the country. Run under the laws prescribed by the Geneva Convention, these camps largely served to fill the labor gaps in agriculture and factory production that American enlistment had created. Moving them to the States also had the added bonus of reducing the difficulties and costs of shipping all the food required to feed these captives to Europe.
In the summer of 1944, the Germans began appearing in Delmarva, just a few months after the owners of six poultry processing plants joined together to build a POW camp just outside of town of Georgetown. The first 300 prisoners were immediately put to work processing chickens. By the end of the war and the eventual repatriation of captives in 1946, more than 3,000 Axis soldiers would help raise the chickens used to feed America's fighting forces—the majority Italians and Germans who had served in Rommel's Afrika Corps.
Like much of the United States, Delmarvans were wary of housing the enemy in their midst at first, but most were eventually won over by their dire need of the young men's labor. Those who utilized POWs were, by and large, satisfied with the soldiers' work. Chicken farmers could drive by the camps in the morning and pick up a few men for the day to help them build houses, hatch chicks, and tend to chickens. Most prisoners required little guarding, as their dress and distance from home deterred run-aways, and the farmers would drop the workers back off at the camp at the end of the night. Some industries, such as the Swift Chicken Processing Plant in Salisbury, MD, had a workforce that was comprised of more than 25 percent prisoners. "We couldn't have run the plant without them," the plant owner recalled.
Not limiting their use to the chicken industry, the more than 4,500 POWs worked across the state of Delaware as dishwashers, waiters, grocers, in canneries, and some as garbage men and carpenters who repaired the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach. All together, while the soldiers themselves earned pennies on the dollar, their labor the added some $2.4 million to the Delaware economy during the war, some $32 million in today's currency.
Despite their enemy status, it is estimated that only 10 percent of these prisoners were hard-core Nazi ideologues. The rest were young men who enjoyed being in the United States, as one Kansas farmer recalled, simply "because no one was shooting at [them]." The treatment they received was humane and, in many instances, well above the standards the Geneva Convention required. A handful of the German prisoners in Delmarva enjoyed their time there so much that they moved back to the Peninsula after the war. There are no statistics as to how many continued to grow government chickens.