Potatoes and POWs

Fall 2010
Ara Dedeian, a POW during WW II, recalls the diet he survived. Photo by John Koster.

How Spuds Saved American GIs in Nazi Prison Camps During World War II

By John Koster

Numbers don’t lie: 28 percent of American and other prisoners of the Japanese died in captivity during World War II, and 90 percent of the survivors needed to be hospitalized after they were repatriated. Only 4 percent of American, British or Canadian prisoners of the Germans died in captivity, and only about 10 percent of the survivors had to be hospitalized before they could return to their families or their bases.

Explanations vary. The tropical climate has been invoked to explain the higher mortality among American prisoners of the Japanese – although some GIs were held in Manchuria or in Japan itself, neither very tropical.

The brutality of the guards has also been cited, although some Nazi guards were outright murderers and some Japanese were lenient, even kindly – one shared his two quinine capsules with an American because they both loved opera, and others sneaked food to Americans they liked or felt sorry for. David Bergamini, a teenaged civilian prisoner of the Japanese in the Philippines, never forgot the Japanese officer who drove him to his former school, shot the lock off the door, and handed him all his old textbooks so that Bergamini could keep studying through the war, if he didn’t starve first. One Japanese private showed Bergamini family pictures while he traded huge bunches of bananas for a handful of cigarettes. Some German guards, also, were less than bestial, although few bent the rules. Americans who stepped out of line were almost as likely to by beaten or shot by the Nazi Germans as they were by the Japanese and their Korean helots in the Pacific or Manchuria.

The single key factor in POW survival was neither the guards nor the climate: The German POW diet was based on potatoes, while the Japanese was based on rice.

Rice is great stuff – if you know how to use it. The Japanese, Koreans and Chinese eat rice three times a day – so much so that in Korean, “I’m going home to eat rice” means “I’m going home to eat dinner.” However, Asians almost never eat rice alone. They usually sprinkle it with soy sauce and garnish it with all kinds of vegetables, beans or powdered fish. Japanese and Korean peasants mark the months of the year by which wild vegetables are coming into season to garnish the rice. In unfamiliar tropical climates such as the Philippines or New Guinea, the Japanese were told: “Watch the monkeys! If a monkey can eat the tropical plants, a man can eat them without getting sick.”

The use of wild forage copied from the monkeys, or sweet potatoes and other vegetables looted from the local population, explains how Japanese and Korean soldiers could thrive on a rice-based diet that – minus the nutritious additions – sent hapless American prisoners to the hospital or the cemetery. No Japanese or Korean would dream of trying to live on rice alone: The propensity of a white-rice diet to induce beri-beri, a nutritional disease, was discovered by a Japanese, Daiimyo (Baron) Takaki, and Japanese soldiers were told to eat every green vegetable they could grow or steal as a remedy. Squabbles over vegetable plots between the Japanese and the local Melanesians convinced many of the Melanesians to side with the Americans and Australians in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea.

The rice diet imposed on prisoners who did not have recourse to vegetables probably killed more Americans than the climate and the guards together. Bill Dyess, a hero of the defense of the Philippines in early 1942, saw the fistful of salted rice a Japanese cook slopped into his hand during the Bataan Death March as part of the death sentence. In fact, the Japanese were feeding him as they fed their own soldiers: The rice was intended as a point of departure in case Dyess couldn’t harvest any wild vegetables or steal any produce. The beheadings and bayoneting Dyess witnessed were genuine atrocities. The food was what the Japanese gave their own soldiers.

The Germans – unlike the Japanese or the Russians – had actually signed the Geneva Convention of 1927, which defined the human rights of prisoners of war. Henry Morgenthau, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, pointed out in 1945 that Germany, whatever the nation’s other problems, had always produced 100 percent of its own potatoes, and potatoes, in German history, had always been the emergency crop to stave off famine.

Frederick the Great, king of Prussia from 1740 to 1785 and one of the few hereditary kings to be an authentic genius, encouraged his people – at this point about two-thirds German and one-third French Huguenot, Dutch, Polish or Jewish – to plant potatoes at every opportunity, because potatoes produced three times more nutrition than wheat or rye and flourished better in northern and eastern Germany’s sandy soil. Even in southern Germany, potatoes were a staple. The War of the Bavarian Succession – the so-called Kartoffelkrieg, or potato war – was waged from 1778 to 1779 by soldiers who subsisted by digging potatoes to sustain themselves while they squabbled over who would be the next king of Bavaria, the colorful southernmost state of Germany. When the potatoes ran out, so did the soldiers who depended on them.

The Germans understood just what hunger could do based on their awful experiences in World War I, when food probably cost them their victory, but they also understood – at least the brightest of them – that they couldn’t hope to defeat the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States all at the same time. Those Germans in charge of the Prisoner of War camps for first British and Canadian and then American prisoners devised a ration that would keep Allied prisoners alive without breaking Germany’s economic back: Each Anglo-American POW would receive 9 pounds of potatoes per week, augmented by 5 pounds of bread, and 2-1/2 pounds of cabbage. Supplemental rations would include 7 ounces of sausage and small amounts of sugar, salt, barley and fake coffee, generally made from acorns after the tannins were leached.

Much deplored by Americans and upper-class Anglo-Saxons who expected meat at every meal, this potato-based diet was about as healthy as circumstances permitted. The potatoes themselves made a healthy diet if supplemented by milk or buttermilk and by carrots for vitamin A, just as they had produced the best-looking working people in London: Irish immigrants sustained by potatoes, athletic men and beautiful women, as Adam Smith noted in 1776. Potatoes kept the Irish and many continental peasants alive and working in hard times. “With the addition of milk or buttermilk, potatoes form a nutritionally satisfactory diet,” Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote in The Great Hunger.

That’s why the potato was the single most important element in the Germans’ diet for POWs – not to mention their own soldiers. German soldiers were issued a ration of black bread to be eaten as they saw fit, supplemented by the Gulaschkanone, a two-horse cook wagon with multiple boilers and a chimney that delivered hot soup as often as possible, even under combat conditions. The soup was generally devoid of visible meat, although bones were sometimes boiled for their marrow. Potatoes and beans formed the principal nutrients, such as they were, that kept an army alive.

The German POW ration noted above would have sustained vitality. Potatoes, as Thomas Gallagher pointed on in Paddy’s Lament, were a remarkable source of protein, amino acids, and iodine to prevent goiter, and their skins were an anti-scorbutic, rich in vitamin C to prevent scurvy and to prevent a weakened immune system in the absence of fresh fruit and greens. Americans who were fed this potato-based diet may have objected to the lack of meat and sweets, but they not only had the energy to get through the day but sometimes organized competitive sports, including softball and boxing, theatricals – and escape attempts. The rich array of nutrients in potatoes fended off the kind of nutritional diseases that were all too familiar among prisoners of the Japanese, who subsisted on rice without vegetables.

By the end of 1944, Germany’s railroad lines were in such bad shape due to Allied strafing and bombing attacks that the supply of potatoes – still adequate – couldn’t be shipped to POW camps, or anywhere else. The POW camp commandants reverted to the diet of the death camps for Jews and other unwanted prisoners, calculated to keep a slave laborer alive for eight months before “natural selection” eliminated him.

“For breakfast we got one slice of black bread and hot water for coffee – but no coffee,” said Ara Dedeian, a Private First Class in the U.S. Army’s 106th Division captured during the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944. “For dinner it was another slice of bread and a soup that was mostly hot water with some turnip and cabbage parts in it. If we were real lucky, we might have gotten a piece of a potato in this soup.” Dedeian, who recently received a POW-MIA medal, was about 5-foot-4 and lost 50 pounds as a POW. Some others lost 80 pounds – and some lost their lives.

American women who married former POWs quickly learned never to offer their husbands turnip or cabbage in any visible form. The potato never assumed the same notoriety. Americans who were captured before the railroad system was bombed and strafed out of existence were always glad to see a potato on the dinner plate. For them it had been, literally, a lifesaver.


Gallagher, Thomas, Paddy’s Lament
Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger
Kiple, Kenneth F. and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, eds., The Cambridge World History of Food

About the author: John Koster is the author of the new nonfiction book Custer Survivor and regularly writes for Wild West magazine. Minjae Kim helped research this article.

Scroll to Top
Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter of happenings at MOFGA.