1943, World War II had taken its toll in Rochester; over 29,000 Rochesterians were drafted, taking a toll on already stressed production. Rochester. The city had am interesting way of fixing the problem; they brought in prisoners of war to work in the farms.
Initially used as military police barracks, the facility at Cobbs Hill became a POW camp in late September 1943, when 60 Italian captives were brought in to supplement the workforce at local farms and food processing plants. Italian prisoners worked on area farms and food processing plants 10 hours a day, six days a week, at $0.80 per day.
Less than a month after the prisoners’ arrival, Italy declared war on Germany. The Italians became allies and were eventually freed. The Italians were replaced at Cobbs Hill with 100 German POWs June 26, 1944, to keep production going.
The relationship between the prisoners and the community was generally harmonious, a fact some American soldiers deeply resented. Tensions erupted one August evening in 1944. A crowd of about 200 residents from the surrounding neighborhood had gathered outside the camp to listen to the Germans sing. Angered by the praise and appreciation expressed in their applause, soldiers reproached the listeners for their lack of patriotism. Arguments grew heated, and the Rochester police were called in to restore order.
After this incident, the city, backed by the Monroe County American Legion, pressed the Army to relocate the prisoners quartered at Cobbs Hill. The city complied (after the canning season in November) and moved the prisoners to camps across northern New York.
That was short lived however, February 1945 the city was hit with seven successive snowstorms that paralyzed the city, forcing the city to ask that POWs be brought from the Hamlin Camp to the city to help shovel out the city. Over 250 prisoners shovel city streets in unannounced locations guarded by police.
Farmers, canners and other food processing interests, anxious about meeting the production demands of the upcoming season, lobbied to keep the prisoners in the city. Monroe County’s American Legion and Council of the Army and Navy Union insisted that they leave.
In the spirit of compromise, prisoner labor continued to be used in the area’s fields and factories throughout the duration of the war, but the workers were housed in camps outside the city. The Cobbs Hill camp was permanently closed to POWs in the spring of 1945.