COVID-19 Updates: The Wisconsin Historical Society hours have changed. See a full list of COVID-19 Closures and Events HERE.

Discrimination, Relocation, and Prisoners of War | Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

Discrimination, Relocation, and Prisoner of War Camps in America

Wisconsin World War II Stories: The Home Front

Discrimination, Relocation, and Prisoners of War | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge German POWs Marching to Trucks, WHI 43578.

German Prisoners of War Marching
to Trucks, 1945

Columbus, Wisconsin. A work shift of German prisoners at a prisoner of war camp marching to trucks to be conveyed to work at a local cannery. View the original source document: WHI 43578

Grade level: Secondary

Duration: More than one class period

In this lesson, students will analyze historic documents that set in motion the relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans. They will examine photographs of the relocation camps and read personal stories. Students will compare and contrast those images and stories with German POW camps in Wisconsin and stories of German Americans who, though in much smaller numbers, were interned during World War II, as well.

This lesson ask students to think hard about civil liberties in wartime. They ask students to recognize the importance in a democracy of examining a nation's past actions, though the act of doing so may be painful. Finally, these lessons ask students to consider the importance of knowing one's history in order to understand the present.


Students will:

  • Analyze historic documents, including photographs and personal stories
  • Compare and contrast German POW camps in Wisconsin with the stories of interned German Americans during WWII
  • Understand the importance of examining a nation's past actions in a democracy
  • Use the past to better understand the present


In the decades immediately following World War II, most high school students did not learn about racial discrimination or the relocation of Japanese Americans and alien Germans and Italians into camps. Similarly, students generally were not taught about the WW II-era prisoner of war camps located within their own state. Today, teachers have learned and students are taught about the racial and ethnic discrimination that occurred in the first half of the 20th century. Nonetheless, such stories from "The Good War" remain difficult to tell, as can be seen in Wisconsin WWII Stories: Home Front. Marti Suyama and Allan Hida (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) remember precisely the date that President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, giving the U.S. Army the power to remove them from their homes. They describe it as "a day our freedom was lost."

The history of ethnic discrimination during World War II is complicated by the knowledge that people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii, where the attack took place, were not interned. Furthermore, enemy prisoners of war lived and worked in small Wisconsin (and other states) towns such as Waupun and Columbus for the duration of the war, while across the nation, several thousand alien German and Italians and their American-born family members were sent to internment camps.

The fourth video in this series recounts the varied stories of home front experience. Although textbooks generally include this previously understudied subject, too often the focus is quite narrow, leaving students with an incomplete picture of home front society. In contrast, Wisconsin WWII Stories: Home Front offers a wider history, incorporating both traditional and new themes.

Topics included are: the industrial employment of both women and men, the importance of wartime farm production, community interactions with enemy prisoners of war, the work of German POWs in the food production industry, the need for teachers and nurses at industrial plants, and the forced relocation of Japanese Americans. Information is also included about leisure time activities such as listening to records and the radio, going to films, and attending parties and dances helps students understand that social activities continue during wartime.

The videos in this series and the coordinated lesson plans can be used in various ways. The lessons can be combined with part or whole use of the videotapes or online video clips, or the lessons can "stand alone." The five video series and lesson plans can constitute a complete World War II unit. Alternatively, any one component may be added as enrichment to an existing unit or program.

Resource Materials


  1. Review with students the "Chronology of WW II Incarceration," leading up to February of 1942. Use the link found under "Resource Materials" to get an overview of legislation regarding Asian Americans dating from 1790.

  2. Have students read Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942, and the Evacuation Order and complete the questions and activities on the "Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry" Worksheet.

  3. On the following day, have students read the timeline of German and Italian Americans who were similarly arrested and interned during World War II (see link above). Ask the students to record the key points they learned in their notebooks.

  4. To prepare for a small group activity, have students study several sets of photos and texts:

    • View selected images from the 352 photographs in the University of Utah's Japanese-American Relocation Collection. Try to get a sense of different aspects of camp life from eating, sleeping, and daily routines to weather conditions, geography, and personal freedom. Sketch several scenes in your notebook.

    • View the introductory pages of Ansel Adams' book, "Born Free and Equal." Read the Dedication, the reprint of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and the quote from Abraham Lincoln. Read the Forward by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes (image 7). Finally, view as many photos as time permits. There are 101 pages in this book. Try to capture a variety of images in sketches on your notebook page.

  5. Then, divide students into teams of 2-4 students. Ask them to recreate a "tableau" from one of the sets listed above. Directions are found on the "Tableau" Worksheet.

  6. As a conclusion to this study, have students follow the sequence of images and text from the Smithsonian's "A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution" site. Ask each student to write an essay on one of the following subjects:

    • Under what circumstances and to what extent should the U.S. government curtail the civil rights of its citizens? Use examples from the history you have studied here to support your ideas.

    • What should be the treatment of prisoners of war, naturalized citizens, and legal aliens (including American-born children) whose nation of origin is an enemy in war? Why? Use ideas gained from your study here to support your ideas.


National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience

(National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA)

Era 8, Standard 3

The causes and course of World War II, the character of the war at home and abroad, and its reshaping of the U.S. role in world affairs.

Standard 3C

The student understands the effects of World War II at home.

5-12 Explain how the United States mobilized its economic and military resources during World War II.
7-12 Evaluate how minorities organized to gain access to wartime jobs and how they confronted discrimination.
9-12 Evaluate the internment of Japanese Americans during the war and assess the implication for civil liberties.
7-12 Analyze the effects of World War II on gender roles and the American family.
5-12 Evaluate the war's impact on science, medicine, and technology, especially in nuclear physics, weaponry, synthetic fibers, and television.
Wisconsin's Model Academic Standards for Social Studies
Standard B - History: Time, Continuity, and Change
B.12.1 Explain different points of view on the same historical event, using data gathered from various sources, such as letters, journals, diaries, newspapers, government documents, and speeches
B.12.2 Analyze primary and secondary sources related to a historical question to evaluate their relevance, make comparisons, integrate new information with prior knowledge, and come to a reasoned conclusion
B.12.4 Assess the validity of different interpretations of significant historical events
B.12.5 Gather various types of historical evidence, including visual and quantitative data, to analyze issues of freedom and equality, liberty and order, region and nation, individual and community, law and conscience, diversity and civic duty; form a reasoned conclusion in the light of other possible conclusions; and develop a coherent argument in the light of other possible arguments
B.12.6 Select and analyze various documents that have influenced the legal, political, and constitutional heritage of the United States
B.12.9 Select significant changes caused by technology, industrialization, urbanization, and population growth, and analyze the effects of these changes in the United States and the world
B.12.18 Explain the history of racial and ethnic discrimination and efforts to eliminate discrimination in the United States and elsewhere in the world


These lesson plans are designed to be used with Wisconsin World War II Stories: Part IV: Home Front, a video series created by Wisconsin Public Television and the Wisconsin Historical Society, in association with the Wisconsin Dept. of Veterans Affairs. The lessons in this part of Wisconsin World War II Stories span interest areas and levels. They include geography, technology, and human interest studies, and draw upon a wide array of social studies skills. Information on the series can be found at the Wisconsin World War II Stories website.

Author: Victoria Zuleger Straughn.