The men are herded in, naked and confused. Their heads have been shaved raw. They have been told they are being marched into a shower. Some are skeptical, others resigned as they stand cold and shivering, far from home.

The year is 1944. It is World War II.

What may appear to be another image of despicable inhumanity at Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen actually is a humane processing center in Hoboken, N.J. The showers really are intended only for cleansing. Far from being victims of Germany's Nazi regime, these men have been fighting to advance it. Now they are prisoners of war, held captive in America. From 1942 to 1946, the United States swarmed with captured enemy troops. Nearly 400,000 German soldiers and officers were held in more than 500 POW camps throughout the nation, including several in Maryland and Virginia. About 50,000 Italian and 5,000 Japanese also were prisoners here. The process began as an unavoidable consequence of war. Saturated with captured enemy troops, Britain turned to her major ally for help in containing the flow of prisoners. With no precedent for such a large influx and fearing possible consequences of having so many enemy troops on American soil, the United States agreed only reluctantly. The first prisoners, most of them hardened veterans of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's elite Afrika Korps, began arriving in 1942. Historians recall the early 1940s as a time of great wariness in America, of skeptical citizens and a tense government. What evolved was a certain level of comfort with an extraordinary situation. Many prisoners, in fact, became integral parts of the American economy, filling fields and factories once worked by Americans fighting overseas. German prisoners picked fruit in California, stuffed olives in Texas and, ironically, packed kosher meat in New Jersey. Nevertheless, the government's inexperience at running such an unprecedented program often was glaringly apparent. The War Department, precursor of the Defense Department, had never had to apply the Geneva Convention's provisions for treatment of war prisoners and sometimes made dangerous mistakes trying to do so. Allowing prisoners to maintain their own military hierarchy and discipline, for example, sometimes led to loss of control in certain camps. Prisoner processing often was haphazard. Guards sometimes were inadequate, with brazen escapes not uncommon. Rabid Nazis managed to dominate some camps and instill terror among their less fanatical countrymen, not all of whom were devoted members of the National Socialist {Nazi} Party. For all of its problems, though, the POW program in this country ultimately was a success. The fair and humane treatment accorded captive Germans, which some critics charged was coddling, often helped to ensure that American prisoners in German hands received similar treatment. And, it demonstrated such an admirable view of American ideals that thousands of prisoners returned after the war to establish their lives here. One was Henry Ruhe, 71, who now lives in Charlottesville. Sitting in his home, Ruhe recently recalled his experiences as a prisoner not yet 18 years old when captured in a foxhole during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. Once an eager product of Adolf Hitler's quest for a "thousand year Reich," he suddenly was one of a few survivors on his way from a bloody battlefield to an uncertain future in enemy hands. As the prison ship docked at Hoboken, Ruhe says, he was convinced that a horrible fate awaited him. "We get to this cold pier, the wind whistling through," he remembers. "It was bitter cold. We were standing there freezing. And then we went through this process. Now the fear came back . . . we've got to go through that little door there. What are they going to do?" Ruhe's superiors had warned him that German soldiers would be castrated if captured by the Americans. After being processed at Hoboken, Ruhe says, he was surprised and relieved to find himself not only intact but well-treated, though anxiously wondering when the mutilation would be inflicted. American authorities put him on a train bound for a prison camp in Idaho. The comparative luxury of the train struck him immediately. "This was like, wow, man," he says. "The seats pulled back and were padded. We could go to the bathrooms. You had to raise your hand, but we were fed properly. Good food, too, not enough, but food we never had before." Peanut butter became a lifelong favorite. Ruhe's experience was not unique. Many German prisoners traveling to camps across the land were stunned by America's industrial might. German propaganda had assured them that the United States was in ruins. Most POWs had to face one certain indignity before being shipped to their camps. U.S. soldiers who processed them were eager for souvenirs of the action they were missing overseas and often stripped the Germans of medals or decorations. Sgt. Reinhold Pabel, wounded in the chest during the Italian campaign, recalled in Arnold Krammer's book, Nazi Prisoners of War in America, that "as soon as the stretcher had been placed on the floor, a bunch of souvenir hunters ripped some of my decorations off my blouse. After they had done so, they asked me if I had any objections. I kept my mouth shut." Aside from encountering the occasional cruel guard, this was the worst treatment most prisoners received from their American captors. Their hundreds of destinations across the nation were similar in the degree of comfort and privileges extended to the POWs as part of the effort to ensure similar treatment for Americans in enemy hands. The International Red Cross was one group that monitored camp conditions for both sides. Food was hot and plentiful, often reflecting German tastes. Stores were available so prisoners could buy candy, soda and other food with their small prison wages. Regular showers and clean sheets in military-style barracks were the norm. The camps had soccer leagues and symphony orchestras. Prisoners often staged musical comedies, dramas or burlesque skits. Areas were set aside for leisure activities such as Ping-Pong, chess and cards. Many prisoners indulged their artistic sides with painting and crafts, some of which they sold. Most camps had libraries with German and English titles. Camp Dermott in Arkansas, for one, had more than 9,000 volumes. Local and national newspapers were available, and there were even printing presses at some camps for newspapers published by prisoners. Popular Hollywood films and cartoons were shown, and phonograph records were available. Bing Crosby's rendition of "Don't Fence Me In" was a big hit at many camps. Classes were offered. At Camp Clinton, Miss., for example, prisoners could take courses in American Indian history, Chinese culture and plants of the United States. Many camps offered correspondence courses with colleges, and prisoners eventually studied through 103 universities and technical schools. The educational programs were so highly esteemed that some German universities offered full credit for the courses when prisoners returned home. Coupled with the covert joys of homemade booze and accommodating guards, prison for many Germans was more like summer camp. POWs in Atlanta, Neb., even came to call their camp der goldener Kafig, the golden cage. Some Americans were outraged by the benevolent treatment of men who might have killed their sons and brothers in battle. "Put them in Death Valley, chuck in a side of beef and let them starve," one irate citizen wrote the government. There also was concern inititally that escapees might rampage through the country, plundering and killing. Such fears, however, subsided, and townspeople came to appreciate the economic windfall of camps that sometimes doubled populations of towns where they were situated. Many Americans adapted to the presence of so many foreigners in their midst and even started to enjoy the novelty. Ruhe spent many of his prison years as a migrant worker, sent from camp to camp in California to pick a rotation of potatoes, fruit and beets. While held in Bakersfield, he and the other Germans played soccer. "Germans are basically good soccer players because that's all we played," he recalled. Soon their reputation reached the locals, and every Sunday morning, townspeople set up chairs and watched the matches. Ruhe remembers being deeply moved when a delegation from the town purchased uniforms for the players. The language barrier, however, prevented a conventional show of gratitude. "We really wanted to say thank you, but we didn't know how to do it," he recalled, laughing at what came next. The Germans improvised. They lined up in front of the townspeople, raised their arms in the Nazi salute and shouted, "Heil," German for "hail!" Then they turned to the people on the other side of the field and did the same. Whatever their aversion to Hitler's Germany, many Americans came to appreciate that tens of thousands of Germans helped to replace a rapidly shrinking work force. "I don't know whether people appreciate the value of prisoners to the war program," Maj. Gen. Russel B. Reynolds told the Rockford {Ill.} Morning Star in 1945. "Working in a variety of shops and other occupations, they are conserving a vast amount of manpower, doing jobs in which either soldiers or civilians otherwise would be used." Aside from occasional work stoppages or slowdowns inspired by obstinate Nazis, prisoners generally performed well. Working 300 farms in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, for example, they were credited with saving the entire Maine pea crop, the greater part of the Massachusetts cabbage harvest and the entire New Hampshire apple crop, the New York Times noted in 1944. Baron von Wechmar, a former German prisoner who became a member of the European Parliament, quipped to Smithsonian magazine several years ago, "Thanks to my experience in Kansas and Oklahoma, I am an expert at harvesting broom corn and killing rattlesnakes." Local people whose livelihood depended on German labor often doted on the workers, treating them to baked goods, inviting them into their homes, mending their clothes and generally welcoming them warmly. "They were just the best bunch of boys you ever saw in your life," a Texas farmer gushed to Smithsonian. Some people, often including the Germans themselves, saw the disturbing irony of enemy prisoners eating at lunch counters or drinking from fountains where African American citizens were not permitted or welcome. In fact, more strident Nazis cited such blatant racism to mock the U.S. claim to be fighting to save the world for democracy. No matter how successful the labor program or how seemingly cushy the camps, escapes occurred with regularity. One of the most compelling reasons was that, according to the Geneva Convention, POWs were duty-bound to make escape attempts. Even if they had no place to go, prisoners sometimes fled just to get away for a while, to test their freedom or because the temptation was just too strong. At the risk of being shot, they climbed over or tunneled under fences or ran from fields where they worked. Some walked away in fake American uniforms or smuggled themselves out in food trucks or laundry. Some escape methods were more ingenious. Using scrap cardboard, engraved linoleum, India ink and a carved raw potato as a stamp, for example, prisoners forged documents such as Social Security cards and other identification papers and roamed the country on trains and buses. Some even applied for jobs. In his book. Krammer relates several escape schemes. At Camp Mexia, Tex., he writes, prisoners tried to break out by making dummies of themselves and having their colleagues stand them up during inspection so they wouldn't be missed. It might have worked had not one of the fake Germans toppled over. Prisoners at Camp Hearne, Tex., built a boat by using rain slickers, with umbrellas for sails. They reached a nearby river, hoping to sail to the Gulf Coast but were apprehended five miles downriver. One prisoner at Camp Somerset, Md., actually made several practice escapes, returning unnoticed before making his final successful break. Arizona was the site of the only organized, large-scale domestic escape by foreign prisoners in U.S. history when 25 German submarine veterans tunneled from the camp at Papago Park, hoping to reach Mexico. Fanning out of their elaborate, lighted, 66-yard tunnel, some went as far as San Diego. All were recaptured. After escaping a camp in New Mexico, Georg Gaertner roamed free for decades while working as a dishwasher, lumberjack, migrant farm worker, ski instructor and tennis pro under assumed names. The last escaped German prisoner at large, he surrendered to author Krammer in 1985. According to the Geneva Convention, however, he had committed no crime and was not prosecuted. During what he called his "Marlboro Man Adventure," Ruhe and another prisoner escaped from a camp in California through a drainage ditch, intending to mail letters to the International Red Cross about an abusive camp officer. Living off the land, trapping prairie dogs, stealing chickens and eating citrus fruits, the pair reached Mexico. "I was particularly adept at catching rattlesnakes," Ruhe says. "I could catch a rattlesnake almost in mid-strike." The adventure soon wore thin. "This was a lot of fun until it got hard," he says. "Our shoes were going by the wayside. We were in the water for too long, and the leather had gotten stiff and started to break, so you ran with blisters. And then we ran out of food, so we ate cactus fruit. We didn't notice the tiny barbs until our mouths swelled up." Finally, the pair turned themselves in at a local bar, whose owners fed them heartily before they were returned to the prison camp. More ominous than escaped prisoners were the committed Nazis, who established terror campaigns inside many camps against Germans who they felt were not ardent enough in support of party ideals. While a fairly small minority, they wielded frightening power, holding kangaroo courts and threatening, beating and executing some fellow prisoners. Saying he still is fearful after a half century, Ruhe refused to discuss the terrorists. Among their victims was Felix Tropschuh, found hanged in his room at Camp Concordia, Kan. A Nazi secret court had found him guilty of writing anti-Nazi statements in his diary. At Camp Tonkawa, Okla., Johann Kunze was battered to death with clubs and broken bottles, allegedly for supplying military information to his captors. Five men were arrested and convicted in his slaying. On July 10, 1945, they were the first alien POWs executed in the United States. A month after Kunze's death, Nazi thugs fatally clubbed Hugo Krauss at Camp Hearne, Tex., his only apparent crime being that, as a boy, he had lived in New York and spoke Americanized English too well. Newspaper accounts of the bloody deeds horrified many Americans. Dorothy Thompson, a syndicated columnist, and Dorothy Bromley, women's page editor of the New York Herald Tribune', asked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to intervene. After hearing the stories of Nazi brutality from a government official she had invited to dinner for the purpose, Mrs. Roosevelt expressed dismay. "I've got to talk to Franklin," she declared. "Right in our backyard, to have these Nazis moved in and controlling the whole thought process!" Reeducation of German prisoners became a priority, especially after the war when they were to be sent home. The intent was to show the Germans that Nazism was brutish compared with freedom and democracy. Prison officials attempted to teach this through lectures, films and literature. Nothing, however, worked better than the personal encounters German POWs had with ordinary Americans. Ruhe says an elderly carpenter he knew only as "Mr. Lykins" changed his life forever. They met near Lamont, Calif., where Ruhe was picking oranges. Despite the language barrier, the older American and the German youth struck up a friendship as he helped Lykins saw wood at the older man's house near the grove. For months, Ruhe stopped to visit after filling his orange-picking quota, and the two shared cigarettes, halting conversation and gentle companionship. "This is the enemy?" Ruhe recalls thinking to himself, his early indoctrination rapidly crumbling. Not until after the war, when he returned home to a ruined Germany, did he realize the extent of Lykins's friendship, Ruhe says. His parents told him that Lykins had written them to say that their son was doing well and even sent them food. This kindness instilled a deep desire in Ruhe to return to America. When he did, he found that his friend had died. "Thank you ever so much, Mr. Lykins," Ruhe wrote in an unpublished tribute to the quiet, unassuming carpenter who had befriended him, "and may you rest in peace."

CAPTION: German captives salute at the gravesite of a fellow POW at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri.

CAPTION: German prisoners aboard a transport ship head for this country, above. At right, POWs stuff olives at a cannery near Alvin, Tex. At far right, prisoners are marched back to a camp in the South after working local farm fields.

CAPTION: Henry Ruhe, captured in 1944 and held in several camps, is a businessman living in Charlottesville.

CAPTION: German POWs were allowed a broad range of educational and leisure activities. Above, troops relax in barracks decorated with pinups of American actresses. Above right, prisoners attend a drafting class, one of hundreds of courses available at various prison camps. Below right, a championship soccer match. Archive records do not indicate where these photographed camps were situated.