Image by Susan Nolan, Lab Supervisor/Office Manager– ISAS Western Illinois Field Station
Text provided by Richard Fishel, Sr. Research Archaeologist–ISAS Western Illinois Field Station
Last fall, while investigating an Archaic period site northwest of Macomb, an unexpected artifact was recovered from the plowzone: a 1943 German Reichspfennig (“imperial penny”). How this foreign World War II-era coin ended up in a US agricultural field far from any residence is puzzling and may never be known with certainty. The mid-20th century martial history of the United States, however, offers clues to its presence and serendipitous discovery.
What many people may not realize is that enemy combatants were imprisoned in the US during World War II. The number of prisoners during this war had begun to tax the resources of Great Britain, and in August 1942 the United States agreed to house many prisoners of war (POWs). By 1945, there was approximately 155 large prisoner of war base camps in the US, with more than 500 smaller branch camps scattered throughout the country. These installations eventually incarcerated more than 425,000 Axis combatants (the majority of which were German), with the last American-held prisoners discharged in June 1947.
Camp Ellis, located about 15 miles east of Macomb between the towns of Ipava and Table Grove, was one such base camp that also functioned as a US Army training facility and hospital. Construction began in September 1942, with the installation eventually consisting of 2,200 buildings covering 17,750 acres and quartering 25,000 troops; up to 75,000 people lived and worked there during its peak. This military post was officially dedicated on July 4, 1943, with the first German prisoners of war arriving on August 29, 1943. Camp Ellis would eventually house almost 5,000 German combatants, before closing as a POW camp in 1945.
Because of a shortage of workers on the American home front during the war, POWs served as a much-needed labor force. Besides working on the military base, prisoners were allowed supervised leave from the camp to work in nonmilitary-related factories, cutting trees for the lumber industry, or laboring on civilian farms, where they would do such tasks as harvesting crops and digging tile ditches. American farms suffered greatly from the lack of manpower during the war, and more POWs worked in agricultural-related jobs than in any other industry. Prisoners were paid eighty cents for a 12-hour day for work conducted away from the camp, with payment occurring in the form of camp scrip, or coupons, and by 1945 96% of the POWs in the US were working. Even after the end of the war, prisoners were offered the option of immediate repatriation or remaining in the workforce for the short term, and an estimated 5,000 former POWs immigrated back to the US after the war.
While a German presence within the Macomb area during the mid-1940s is firmly established, the occurrence of a WW II German coin within a western Illinois agricultural field is still mystifying. During processing, all money the prisoners had on hand was supposedly confiscated, and possession of US currency by them, because it could be used during escape attempts, was strictly forbidden. However, there are numerous accounts of POWs in the US obtaining American money, either by selling souvenirs to guards, collecting payment from civilians for jobs and errands, or even by finding coins in pockets while on laundry duty at a camp. Prisoners were well known for secreting away a multitude of items, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that some German coinage, especially a small-sized penny, could have been overlooked and not seized by the Americans.
Considering the sizeable distance from any house, and the lack of other historic-age material in this agricultural field, the German penny likely was lost by someone engaged in farm work or timbering. This person could have been a German POW, a guard who paid a prisoner for a souvenir, someone who emigrated from Germany to the US after the war, or even a US WW II veteran. Whatever scenario may be the case, the recovery of a WW II German coin from a farm field in west-central Illinois is an interesting footnote to the history of the region.