An often forgotten aspect of the home front, the United States detained more than 400,000 Axis prisoners in rural camps during the war. According to the provisions as agreed upon by the Geneva Convention, POWs could work if they received pay and their employment did not contribute directly to the war effort. To help alleviate the severe shortage of workers in the United States, tens of thousands of the former enemy combatants labored on farms and in canneries and mills. 31
In the spring of 2014, after driving my ten-year-old granddaughter, Jasmine, to an Odyssey of the Mind contest in Ames, Iowa, I returned home by way of Algona, Iowa with the objective of visiting one of Louis Sullivan’s architectural “jewel boxes,” the Henry Adams Building. During the early 20th Century, Louis Sullivan, a mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed eight community banks throughout the Midwest, collectively referred to as his jewel boxes on account of their ornate yet distinctive style.
I stopped at the Henry Adams Building, where a representative of the local Chamber of Commerce pointed out noteworthy features and chronicled the building’s fascinating history. I left carrying a brochure on the subject of Sullivan’s building, which encouraged a stalwart Algona promoter and charming elderly lady, Neva Johnson, to approach and initiate a conversation. The verbal exchange began with the sharing of our mutual admiration for Louis Sullivan’s work and a synopsis of the community’s efforts, lead by her husband, to rehabilitate the Algona jewel box.
Following our discussion of the Henry Adams Building, Mrs. Johnson recommended a visit to the Camp Algona POW Museum, commemorating Algona’s World War II prisoner of war complex. Although unaware of its hours, or even where to find it, she insisted, “As long as you’re here, you have to see it. ” She strove to capture my interest by commenting on the experiences of one of her friends, who grew up on a nearby farm. During the war, her friend’s father hired prisoners from the camp to work on their farm.
The individual prisoners, whom her father favored, he rehired time and again, which resulted in an affable familiarity. Neva’s friend fondly remembered teaching the prisoners the church service in English and, in turn, the prisoners teaching her the service in German. This and similar encounters initiated lifelong friendships. For decades after the conclusion of the war, Algona families and former POWs exchanged letters and trips across the Atlantic to maintain relationships nurtured in these troubled times. 33
Torn between my desire to resume the journey home and the appeal of perusing the museum exhibits, I compromised by returning to the Chamber of Commerce for information, which perhaps I could utilize on a subsequent visit to Algona. Greeted by the same chamber representative as I reentered the Adams Building, I made an inquiry in regards to the POW museum. Reluctant to allow my departure with just a brochure, she opened the museum’s website and proclaimed in triumph, “Its open! ” Subsequently, she proceeded to provide directions and stressed how convenient it would be to visit.
When she finally offered the brochure, she repeated Neva’s exact words, “As long as you’re here, you have to see it. ” I surrendered, giving up all aspirations of promptly leaving Algona. Upon entering the museum, Neva Johnson, who anticipated my arrival, extended a cordial welcome and proceeded with a narration of the nearest display. However, I soon lost my personal tour guide when she became distracted by a conversation with the museum attendant. I scanned the museum and opted to begin a self-guided tour by watching a video presentation near the entrance.
An elderly man, also watching the video that showed prisoners laboring on a threshing crew, volunteered that he had childhood memories of POWs working on his father’s farm. He expounded on the subject by explaining that his father grew up in Germany, immigrating to the United States and settling near Algona in 1925. Since his father spoke German fluently and shared a common cultural upbringing with the prisoners, he effortlessly empathized with their plight.
The man’s father and other German-Americans in the area kept a watchful eye on the POW camp in order to alert authorities on abuses of the prisoners by the guards or camp administration. 4 In addition to general information on the administration of the camp and on the number of prisoners, both German and Italian, the museum exhibited numerous artifacts, including gifts handcrafted by the prisoners and presented to residents of the area with whom they had become acquainted. Even though the handcrafted items varied widely in accordance with the artistic talents of each individual prisoner, they included several beautiful paintings and skillfully carved reliefs.
Nevertheless, amongst the numerous gifts and other artifacts, a plain utilitarian guitar and the accompanying narrative captivated my interest. The Argentine Red Cross visited the POW camp and solicited requests from the prisoners. One of the prisoners asked for and received a guitar from the Argentineans, which he frequently played, bringing a measure of solace to the remainder of his confinement. However, when released at the conclusion of the war, the prisoner bought a replacement guitar of superior quality with funds that he earned while working for the local farmers.
With his cherished acquisition in hand, he left the inferior guitar in Iowa and began his journey home, escorted by the U. S. Military. Before leaving the United States, an official insisted on confiscating his prized possession. It may have been government policy or maybe he merely encountered a selfish individual who coveted the guitar. Regardless of the reason, the former POW’s defense that he purchased the instrument with money he earned and, therefore, should retain possession of it, couldn’t convince his antagonist.
Faced with the certainty of giving up his treasured guitar, he threw it on the ground and stomped it to pieces before defiantly declaring; “Now you can have it! ”35 The General’s Story When the war came to its conclusion, the military’s appetite for armaments waned. As a consequence, shipyards and factories either ceased operations or retooled for a peacetime consumer market, and millions of workers either returned to their former vocations or sought opportunities elsewhere. In addition, millions of service personnel returned to civilian life.
Numerous veterans availed themselves of the GI Bill benefits and attended college, while others returned home and entered the labor market. While at a family gathering, I sat down with one of my uncles, Dick Talbot. Following the usual informal discourse, he announced, “I’m going to tell you a story. ” Always interested in an amusing anecdote, I leaned forward to avoid missing the details. Dick, in his eighties, spoke softer than he had in the past. None of the deficiency, I attributed to the listener’s loss of hearing. After the war, Fritz returned to public life and found employment in an office.
Although well-pleased with how he handled his job assignments, his boss couldn’t condone Fritz’s late arrivals to the workplace, regularly five minutes and frequently ten minutes after his scheduled start time. The boss confronted Fritz by asking, “What was said to you when your military unit assembled and you weren’t on time? ” Fritz thought for a moment before replying, “Good morning, General. ”36 Not anticipating the punch line, I heartily laughed, which consequently, caused my storyteller to exhibit his pleasure with a broad triumphant grin.
Suspicious of deception with a mere joke, I inquired into its truthfulness. Although he couldn’t remember if it occurred after World War II or the Korean Conflict, Dick’s assurances of its validity seemed legitimate. However, my skepticism returned when he followed “The General’s Story” with a yarn concerning a magic lamp and a genie. Although still dubious of the tale’s validity, Dick’s explanation that civilian jobs didn’t necessarily commiserate with former military rank accentuated a truth, which prompted contemplation into its ramifications. Married for Food
Although the people on the home front in the United States faced shortages and burdensome tasks, the home fronts in the war ravaged countries raised the challenges to an entirely different level. In the early 2000s, my wife, Kathy, and I stayed three nights at a bed and breakfast in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, a convenient location from which Kathy could investigate her ancestry at genealogy research facilities in both Madison and Milwaukee. Sentimental attachment also contributed to our decision to stay in Lake Mills. Kathy’s great grandfather briefly lived there during the 1890s before moving on to South Dakota.
Another relative, her great-grandfather’s brother, a lifelong resident and prominent building contractor, constructed numerous structures in the area. As a consequence of research, Kathy ascertained that some still stood. Subsequently, we toured the city and admired her relative’s handy-work. Kathy and I dined by ourselves on the first two delectable breakfasts provided by our hosts. However, two additional couples joined us on our last morning at the breakfast table and, preceding the meal, conversation commenced with self introductions.
Each couple came from a different state with Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois represented. Although everyone around the table spoke in an amenable manner, the introductions, by and large, proved forgettable. However, my interest heightened when the pleasingly plump matron from Illinois, the last to speak, began with an acknowledgement of her foreign accent, “It may sound like I just got off of the boat, but I’ve been here for over forty years. ” I surmised that she had been a British war bride. She thereupon shared a narrative concerning her childhood, which negated my theory.
As a girl in eastern Germany, she grieved the demise of both her father and brother, who fought and died for the Third Reich. She lost her father early in the war and her brother in the heavy fighting for control of the Russian city of Sevastopol. 37 Sevastopol, a strategic naval port on the Black Sea, fell to the Germans in the summer of 1942 after an eight-month long siege. Although the estimated Soviet casualties approached a quarter million, Soviet propaganda turned the heroic defense of the city into a moral victory.
Though not nearly as catastrophic, the Third Reich paid dearly in lives and materiel for the conquest. Estimates of German casualties varied widely, nonetheless the German Eleventh Army losses probably reached as high as 75,000 dead, missing, or wounded. 38 As the Third Reich collapsed, our storyteller, her mother, and her younger sister fled along with thousands of other refuges ahead of the Soviet Red Army toward what they hoped would be protection in the capital city of Berlin.
As they fled, her mother wheeled her sister in a baby carriage and our narrator, a little girl during their flight, alternated between walking and running as she struggled to maintain the pace set by her mother and the other refuges. Numerous people perished as Russian fighters strafed the columns of civilians. Consequently, whenever her mother heard an airplane, she grabbed her eldest daughter, flung her off the road, and quickly followed with her youngest daughter in the carriage.
Fearful for their lives, they clung to each other as each fighter made its deadly pass. Although they didn’t find it a safe haven, the trio eventually made it to Berlin and survived the war. After the conclusion of hostilities, the mother and her two daughters remained in Berlin and lived in the sector occupied by the American armed forces. Nevertheless, hunger, an all too familiar companion, clung to the little family as the mother struggled to feed herself and her two girls.
While still a child living in Berlin, our storyteller made a declaration of intent, “Someday I will marry one of the American soldiers and never go hungry again. ” When she became of age, she did meet and marry an American soldier. The couple left Germany and traveled to Chicago, where friends picked them up in a car for the remainder of their trip to her husband’s childhood home. As they bar hopped all the way to a distant location in the Illinois countryside, she contemplated the character of their destination and even wondered if they’d ever arrive.
Compared to her native Germany, rural Illinois seemed isolated and alien. Nonetheless, she adapted to the locale and it became her home. She admitted that her life hadn’t been one of idle luxury as she affirmed, “I had to work in America. ” Concluding her narrative, she spread her arms with theatrical flair, exhibited a good-natured smile, and declared, “However, as you can see, I was never hungry. ”39 A modest curtsy served as a finale to her recital, which she performed by lowering her arms and bowing her head.