POWs in the United States: A Lesson in Compassion

WWII POW camp-Photo from Nebraska State Historical Society

“The best thing that happened to me.” – German POW in USA

My brother, Wil, enjoyed sharing one particular story from his youth. Born in 1932, Wil had 14 years on me before I was born in Colorado, so his childhood held different memories. The visits that he and our father made to the prisoner of war camps during the Second World War help me understand my family better. Father was the son of German immigrants who spoke the native tongue until the kids at school taught him English that rural boys used. He learned proper speech quickly. The family suffered from discrimination during The War to End All Wars. When my father learned of the German prisoners housed at Camp Carson, he took my teen aged brother from Greeley to El Paso County facility.

Wil would sip coffee as he related the story. He and our father brought potatoes for the men. They slipped the tubers between the wires of the fences to the men who were longing for a familiar food. Father spoke with animation among the prisoners, my brother catching key phrases because our father taught basic German words at home. When my brother told the story, he brought a cover of humanity into a war that defied reason. My father and brother never saw enemy soldiers. They only saw human beings, men with serious issues needing a sign of compassion. Giving grace is the defining trait of my extended family.

A Book to Explain

When I spotted the paperback, All For the Cause, I knew that it would be read quickly. Set in Algona, Iowa, the story line revolves around a prisoner of war camp in the middle of Midwestern cornfields. The author, Gail Kittleson, brings the reality of the war to the reader through the characters. So many vivid descriptions, minute details of daily life, and accurate historical information make this novel one that rings with authenticity on many levels. The plot contains the conflict, character development, and romance that readers enjoy in a book. But, my interest centered on the prisoner of war camp embedded in the story.

The Reality of the POW Camps

Since reading Kittleson’s novel, I have become aware of many facts about the prisoner of war camps in the United States. By May, 1945, a total of 425,871 POWs were held in 500 facilities across the country. The prisoners earned money by toiling in canneries, mills, on farms or as stone masons. Like my father and brother, most people realized that these foot soldiers did not sympathize with the Nazi Party, and were simply “people like us”, as my brother would say. As the POWs sweated in laborious jobs alongside Americans, they realized how a free society functioned. The fair and kind treatment experienced in the camps had a lasting impact on them. Many returned to the United States after the war to launch professional careers or renew acquaintances with former captors.

Mel Luetchens learned core values about humanity from the prisoners who worked on his father’s Nebraska farm. “When you know people as human beings up close and understand about their lives, it really alters your view of people and your view of the world.”

My brother never tired of telling the story of the POW camp. He and our father enjoyed the bond of those men whose lives and fortunes had been altered by war. From my vantage point, it is easy to realize that over the years the fruit of compassion continues from generation to generation.

“For every one soldier over there, there were millions of people here doing remarkable things. This little bit of history, where we housed prisoners in the United States, was done with every intention of honoring the Geneva Convention. We showed a more human face, and we are all better because of it.” – Cathy Lazarus, director of Roll Call – Friends of Camp Hearne

2 Comments:

  1. There was a POW camp just outside of Greeley, CO. and we know someone who would go out ans speak through the fence with them… just telling jokes, trying to cheer them up, bring news to them….etc.
    There is an amazing artwork by Kathe Kollwitz of Prisoners of War that makes the people involved “human”…

  2. Wow, Cleo. What a great story about your father and brother! I can’t wait to meet you.

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