World War II prisoners. The words bring to mind black and white images of the six million Jews murdered by Nazi Germany. In America, we not only live with the horrific images of Dachau, Auschwitz and countless other scenes of war, but we also are conditioned to believe that the events of World War II occurred "over there," in Europe, in places far removed from mainland United States. This is especially true in the seclusion of the Midwest.
Dean Simmons ’92, who studied German and economics at St. Thomas, would have been comfortable with history’s portrayal of World War II and Minnesota’s arm’s-length perspective on the war, except that as a young man he happened upon a more direct link to our war effort.
As a high school student, Simmons was shown a 1943 photograph of Italian POWs working on a farm in his hometown of Olivia, Minn. He made a few inquiries about the camp, but it wasn’t until his sophomore year at St. Thomas that he conducted his first interview. During holiday break in 1989, he spoke with Immanuel Lenz, the wife of a Lutheran pastor in Olivia who held religious services for the POWs in 1944-1945. The discussion with Lenz became the impetus for further research. While studying abroad his junior year at the University of Trier, Germany, Simmons used an address left in an Olivia neighbor’s autograph book to establish contact with Alfred Neber, a German POW who had spent time at Minnesota camps in Howard Lake and Bird Island. Neber was eager to share his experiences as a POW with the young American.
The interview with Neber was more than enough to entice the freelance historian in Simmons, who now teaches German at St. Thomas Academy high school in Mendota Heights, Minn., to pursue his interest in Minnesota POWs. Although attempts to investigate the camps often were mired by a lack of centralized information, Simmons continued to collect small strands of details from county registers, historical records and local citizens. Many of his discoveries were left to fate and the openness of those involved in the camps. ("I really haven’t run into anyone, prisoner or farmer, who has been reluctant to talk about this story," Simmons said.) After 10 years, including a return trip to Germany as a graduate student, Simmons’ effort culminated in the publication of Swords into Plowshares: Minnesota’s POW Camps During World War II.
Simmons found that not only did the war take Minnesota husbands from wives, and sons from their mothers and fathers, but it also created an immense shortage of labor in the state. In 1943, there was growing concern that Minnesota’s fields would bulge with rotting onions, potatoes and sweet corn if laborers were not brought in to assist with the harvest. As a result, state agricultural leaders made a formal request for POWs to help on Minnesota farms. On Sept. 5, 1943, four years after Germany’s invasion of Poland and within one week of Italy’s surrender, 200 Italian prisoners arrived by train from Camp Clarke, Mo., and were assigned to camps in Olivia and Princeton. "If there hadn’t been a labor need here," Simmons said, "the POWs would not have been here. It was simply a labor issue. Many times POWs were working right alongside migrant workers in Minnesota fields."
Minnesota was not alone in its request for POW labor, as nearly every state had at least one POW camp in 1944. More than 400,000 prisoners were interned in the United States between 1943 and 1945. Although a small percentage were Italian, most POWs were German, captured during two specific actions — the Afrika Korps troops who surrendered to the British in 1943 and German soldiers who were secured during D-Day in 1944.
After the initial employment of POWs in fall 1943, Minnesota escalated its number of total camps to 21 in 1945, when the number of POWs doing agricultural, logging and small-business labor in the state swelled to its highest level of more than 3,000. Of great interest was not just the fact that there were POWs in our state; after all using POWs for labor was a fairly common practice during the war. But the living conditions in camps throughout the country did raise some concern. Most camps were furnished similarly to the base camps for U.S. troops, with the only noticeable difference being the presence of armed guards, barbed wire and high walls. The POWs were paid an average of 80 cents a day, which was comparable to what U.S. privates received at the beginning of the war. In addition, POWs were allowed to work on correspondence courses, exercise in their own recreation halls, put on theater productions and attend religious activities when they were not working.
George Veith ’43 is more familiar than most with living conditions at American POW camps. Soon after graduation, Veith became a supply sergeant from 1944-1945 at the Italian POW camp in Romulus, NY. As supply sergeant, Veith was responsible for providing food, clothing and other personal items to the POWs. "I was responsible for everything from trucks to sheets," Veith said. "Things were pretty good for the prisoners, although they did complain about only getting clean sheets once a week."
Guided by the terms of the Geneva Convention, "U.S. military decided to do the right thing by these prisoners at a time when a lot of countries were doing the wrong thing," Simmons added. But there was an ulterior motive — the United States wanted healthy workers to harvest the crops and perform other labor. And there were other reasons for the favorable treatment as well. By treating the POWs well, the U.S. military hoped that Germany and Italy would treat U.S. prisoners well, too.
In truth, many of the German prisoners in the United States were aware of the atrocities happening to the Jews in Europe at the hands of Nazi Germany. And as Minnesota veterans began to return home in the fall of 1945, they were well aware of the Nazi effort to eliminate the Jews. "I think the Minnesota prisoners realized, and were quite humbled by the fact, that they were treated so well here," Simmons said.
The complexities of Minnesota’s POW involvement were heightened because so many German immigrants had settled in the Midwest. "Some of the prisoners working in Minnesota had been to America before the war," Simmons reported. "One German POW stationed at the Remer logging camp had been to Duluth before the war and then became a POW in northern Minnesota. Another prisoner, Heinrich Waldschmidt, had an uncle who lived in St. Louis who he corresponded with regularly."
Although prisoners were not allowed to have contact with civilians, a shared sense of heritage and a strong curiosity by local citizens, coupled with the search for excitement by prisoners, often led to personal interaction between Minnesotans and the POWs. Simmons found many documented cases of notes being passed through fences and rendezvous outside of camps. "They weren’t escapes in the true sense," Simmons said. "The prisoners were often bored and would sneak out to see what American life was all about. They would almost always return to the camp on their own." In one example, three POWs left the Owatonna camp one August evening to attend the county fair. One returned to camp on his own at 1:30 a.m. wearing civilian clothes, another arrived back at 4:30 a.m. and the third was found by camp guards on his way back from the fair, where he said that he "rode the Ferris wheel, bought a sandwich, and played a game machine."
An encounter even more telling about the level of interaction between civilians and POWs happened in New Ulm, where a prisoner had arranged to stay with a local family for the night. The prisoner sneaked out of camp and was supposed to meet the family outside of a designated cornfield. When the car pulled up and honked its horn to signal the prisoner to come out, the field suddenly came alive with prisoners who had made similar arrangements with other families.
Veith, who kept in contact with many of the Italian POWs after the war, and still counts two of them as close friends, was witness to similar encounters between prisoners at Romulus and local New Yorkers. "The camp was open to visitors every Sunday afternoon. Given the large Italian population in New York, things got pretty busy there on Sundays." Veith adds to this his own memorable experience with the POWs shortly before they left the United States to go home, when he was "kissed on both cheeks by more than 150 Italian prisoners."
Given the chaos and heightened anger directed at German soldiers in Europe after the war, perhaps it is not surprising that as many as 5,000 former prisoners returned to America to live after the war in hope of being treated in the same manner as they were as POWs.
The publication of Swords into Plowshares has begun a conversation that has Simmons serving as a conduit for information about the camps, especially when he speaks to audiences in the 21 areas that had POW camps in Minnesota (including once with Veith at Fort Snelling). "People approach me with photos that they have of the camps and of the prisoners, and often tell me stories they have heard from their own family members," Simmons said. "And there have even been prisoners, like Waldschmidt (who had worked at the cannery in Fairmont) who, because of the book, have re-established contact with people they knew while working in Minnesota."
Simmons, who was aided in his research and the writing of the book by John Davenport from St. Thomas archives and C.B. Rykken, a St. Thomas custodian with a background in publishing, is also proud to have gathered this information before it was lost to the passing of the World War II generation. "A number of the people I have interviewed have already died," he said. "So, I feel as though I’ve had an opportunity to document something that would have slipped away if I hadn’t been there to do it."
If you are interested in speaking to Simmons or acquiring a copy of Swords into Plowshares: Minnesota’s POW Camps during World War II, please contact him at (651) 983-9616, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.