Elinor Powell: The African-American Nurse Who Fell in Love with a German POW

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

Tags:

Sentimentality has never been my strong suit, but I’ll say this about love: it can be pretty hard to find. Sometimes, all the places you think you’ll find it—bars, gyms, at work—might actually be terrible places to look for it. And sometimes, matches that seem perfect just don’t work.

Other times, love springs forth from the least likely places, born under a violent pressure. Like a gemstone, or all those radioactive boars that have risen from the Chernobyl disaster. Or the time when African-American nurse Elinor Powell fell in love with Frederick Albert—a German prisoner of war—in Arizona in 1944.

The lesson here is twofold: First, don’t eat any boar you catch in Central Europe. Second, if I may paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm, “[love], uh, finds a way”—even through war, fascism, and Jim Crow.

Black Nurses During WWII

Elinor and Frederick never would have met, had it not been for some pretty heavy institutional racism. During World War II, African Americans served their country in overseas support and combat roles. And Uncle Sam wanted their service—he just didn’t want them to serve with the other soldiers, apparently.

They were instead formed into black units, such as the 92nd Infantry Division of “Buffalo Soldiers.” Their commanding officers were still white, but black and white grunts fought separately. The majority of black soldiers were used in support roles, as their white commanders thought them unable and unwilling to fight well, despite all evidence to the contrary.1

That kind of battlefield bullsh*t happened back on the homefront, too. The United States military needed lots of nurses very badly. See, a lot of young fellas were getting hurt in the international effort to curb Japanese and German (and, to a much lesser extent, Italian) ambitions, to put things very mildly.

Elinor Powell (on the right) with another nurse at Camp Florence, Arizona.

So, they wanted as many nurses as possible, but they sure did prefer that those nurses were white. So much so, in fact, that they were turning away a lot of prospective black nurses, despite their grave need. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise—racism is no friend to logic.

But, racial segregation or not, eventually needs must, and so the army started accepting some black nurses. Still, for these nurses’ trouble, they were rewarded with the least desirable duties and kept in separate locations. Rather than treating American soldiers, they were forced to care for German prisoners, shipped back to the States after capture.2

Camp Florence

A number of prisoner-of-war camps were set up in the United States to house captured Axis soldiers during the war. Seems like a lot of work to capture guys in Europe, then ship them all the way back across the Atlantic to camps in North America. But, we couldn’t just kill them, could we? Well, Stalin might have disagreed, but I wouldn’t call Uncle Joe a role model.

One of these labor camps was in Florence, Arizona. Camp Florence’s first tenants were Italian POWs, and these dudes were notably easygoing and carefree, despite being in f**king war jail. Just because they were working hard labor didn’t mean they couldn’t sing often and—if I can make a conjecture here—very loudly. You ever been to a restaurant where a big Italian family is also eating? We’re loud as sh*t. I think it’s all the limoncello.

These dudes also performed jailhouse operettas, because of course they did. All told, it seems like the Italians POWs had a decent time after being captured. They made their own fun, you know? Almost makes you wonder how dedicated these boys really were to fighting the war in the first place.

Speaking of, Italy decided in 1944 that it wasn’t into World War II anymore. With them out, the Italians at Camp Florence were shipped out elsewhere. They were replaced with a very different group of prisoners: Germans.

According to one American guard, Bud Gomes, there were two kinds of German POW: conscripts that weren’t very gung-ho about the war, and the “hardcore Nazis.” According to Gomes, most of them were decent enough guys, and they liked to keep busy. So, an industrious group that likely didn’t sing operettas, and also some of them were Nazis.3

Taking care of the Germans was a particularly insulting assignment for African-American nurses. Not only were they relegated to tending to the enemy, but this was an enemy that represented the Third Reich. Whether their patients were Wehrmacht conscripts, or hardcore SS, they were the army of white supremacy. Some of them even made this abundantly clear by treating the black nurses like garbage.

They weren’t the only ones. Many Germans were surprised to see that American attitudes toward non-whites were, ah, not quite so different from the way the POWs had seen back home, in Germany.

According to Matthias Reiss, a University of Exeter professor with a focus on German POWs, “You’d be hard-pressed to find a German soldier who was held captive in America who didn’t speak about African-Americans. They were quite aware there was a major discrimination problem and that the Americans weren’t really allowed to occupy the moral high ground on that matter.” Often enough, the German POWs were treated as relative equals by camp officers. Their black nurses didn’t receive the same respect.4

Elinor Powell and Frederick Albert

OK, so now, when I tell you a black nurse named Elinor Powell, and a German soldier named Frederick Albert met in Arizona in 1944, you’re not going to wonder how the hell that happened.

Elinor was one of those nurses I was talking about earlier. Born in Milton, Massachusetts, in 1921, she was one of the relative few African-Americans accepted into nursedom (nursehood?) during the war, but relegated to patching up hardcore Nazis, who I’m sure weren’t too fond of people who looked like Elinor. Aside from their whole “master race” delusion, they were probably still chafed about Jesse Owens winning the gold in 1936. Rule of thumb: Nazis don’t like anybody.

Elinor and Frederick (but not in that order).

Fortunately, Elinor met one of the good ones (i.e., not a hardcore Nazi).5

Frederick Albert was born in 1925 in Oppeln, Germany. You know where Oppeln is, right? Good. While stationed in Italy, he was captured by the Allies and shipped to the States.

Frederick wasn’t a conscript, but he wasn’t a Nazi “true believer,” either—he volunteered to be a paratrooper to impress his dad, who had fought in World War I and who didn’t seem to give a shit about his own kids. Maybe dying in a war would help him care? It was a bad idea all around—never make big life decisions just to impress your father—but it turned out to be a f**kup that would lead Frederick to the love of his life.

Frederick was working in the kitchen in the officer’s mess hall at Camp Florence when he saw Elinor. He worked up the nerve to put his cards on the table, B-lined it to her, and said, “You should know my name. I’m the man who’s going to marry you.” If Frederick was anything like me, he then got halfway back to his table before realizing he didn’t actually work his name into that pick-up line. But, you know, whatever. She knew where he lived.

Cheeky f**ker, if I may crib some British English. The Deutsch Don Juan knew how to talk to women, apparently. But, even more importantly, he knew how to cook. Frederick won Elinor’s heart, fixing her special meals while working in the kitchen.

The romance wasn’t all double scoops of tater tots and extra chocolate milk, though. When a group of American officers found out that a German POW was carrying on with an African-American nurse, they beat Frederick severely. Apparently, it didn’t matter which side of the Atlantic you were on, or which army you belonged to. Love between the races was verboten.6

After the War

Germany eventually did the Italian thing and surrendered to the Allies on May 8, 1945, and most German POWs were sent back to Germany, including Frederick. Generally speaking, that was all for the best, but it meant Elinor and Frederick were split up.

“Enemies,” according to World War II.

Frederick had meant what he said when he told Elinor he was going to marry her—he made his way back to the United States after the war, and the two of them had their first kid. By then, segregation in the Army was over, but Jim Crow laws still dictated that a union between Elinor and Frederick would be illegal.

In 1947, they got married in Manhattan (down south and out west, Jim Crow was still strictly enforced). It wasn’t the end of their struggle for acceptance, though: the two of them—and their kids—would spend years moving around the country, and to Germany for a spell, in search of a community that could handle the idea that a person with darker skin and a person with paler skin could be an item. Eventually, in 1959, they were able to settle in an interracial neighborhood in Norwalk, Connecticut.7

Finding Love in All the Wrong Places

The coolest thing about this story, I think, is that it’s about two people who couldn’t find the acceptance they needed at home, so they instead found it in each other, despite all the obstacles.

Elinor, in the U.S. Army, had been treated as a subhuman, regardless of her uniform. She was refused service in restaurants near her camp, and white army officers treated her and other black nurses as less socially significant than the enemy POWs they were caring for. At least, these officers figured, the Germans were white. When one POW threw the N-word at Elinor, he went unpunished. The officers were fine with that, just as long as no POWs fell in love with her, I guess.

The Alberts eventually found their home in an interracial community in Connecticut.

Frederick couldn’t find acceptance, either. Not because of his race, but because he had a distant father. He and Elinor tried to find acceptance by donning a uniform, and quickly realized conforming wasn’t going to win them as many points as they’d hoped.

It was only by going against the grain that they found happiness in each other.

Oh, and their youngest kid, Chris Albert, became an acclaimed jazz musician who played for the Duke Ellington Orchestra—but that’s another story.

Share this article... your friends will love it too ❤️

Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Hodges, Robert Jr. (February 1999). How the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ helped turn the tide in Italy during World War II. Retrieved from http://www.historynet.com/how-the-buffalo-soldiers-helped-turn-the-tide-in-italy-during-world-war-ii.htm
  2. Clark, Alexis. (2013, May 15). A Black Nurse, a German Soldier and an Unlikely WWII Romance. Retrieved from https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/15/a-black-nurse-a-german-soldier-and-an-unlikely-wwii-romance/
  3. Raines, Elaine. (2009, August 27). Florence’s prisoner of war camp. Retrieved from https://tucson.com/florence-s-prisoner-of-war-camp/article_24db8c07-7275-5a4e-83d6-f50ac92e67d2.html
  4. Clark, Alexis. (2013, May 15). A Black Nurse, a German Soldier and an Unlikely WWII Romance. Retrieved from https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/15/a-black-nurse-a-german-soldier-and-an-unlikely-wwii-romance/
  5. Raines, Elaine. (2009, August 27). Florence’s prisoner of war camp. Retrieved from https://tucson.com/florence-s-prisoner-of-war-camp/article_24db8c07-7275-5a4e-83d6-f50ac92e67d2.html
  6. Clark, Alexis. (2013, May 15). A Black Nurse, a German Soldier and an Unlikely WWII Romance. Retrieved from https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/15/a-black-nurse-a-german-soldier-and-an-unlikely-wwii-romance/
  7. Clark, Alexis. (2013, May 15). A Black Nurse, a German Soldier and an Unlikely WWII Romance. Retrieved from https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/15/a-black-nurse-a-german-soldier-and-an-unlikely-wwii-romance/

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Clark, Alexis. (2018, May 15). The Army’s First Black Nurses Were Relegated to Caring for Nazi Prisoners of War. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/armys-first-black-nurses-had-tend-to-german-prisoners-war-180969069/
  • Clark, Alexis. (2013, May 15). A Black Nurse, a German Soldier and an Unlikely WWII Romance. Retrieved from https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/15/a-black-nurse-a-german-soldier-and-an-unlikely-wwii-romance/
  • Hodges, Robert Jr. (February 1999). How the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ helped turn the tide in Italy during World War II. Retrieved from http://www.historynet.com/how-the-buffalo-soldiers-helped-turn-the-tide-in-italy-during-world-war-ii.htm
  • Raines, Elaine. (2009, August 27). Florence’s prisoner of war camp. Retrieved from https://tucson.com/florence-s-prisoner-of-war-camp/article_24db8c07-7275-5a4e-83d6-f50ac92e67d2.html
  • Ramirez, Rayner, and Jessica Blank. (2013, June 12). A German P.O.W. and Black Nurse Marry During Jim Crow. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/News/romance-german-pow-black-nurse-find-love-times/story?id=19366709

Want our best stories in your inbox once per week?

Yes 🙌 No 😞