Near the end of World War II, a prisoner of war (POW) camp in Whitewater State Park held German POWs (on screen). Dr. Richard Musser (at left) will give a presentation on the camp and prisoners who worked in fields and businesses throughout the area. The presentation is Wednesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. at the St. Charles Library.
Prisoners camped at Whitewater
In the last years of World War II (WWII), civilians in Minnesota and Wisconsin saw for the first time soldiers of Hilter's Third Reich. Local towns must have been buzzing with the question, "Did you hear? Did you see them?" German prisoner of war (POW) camps at Whitewater State Park and outside of Galesville, Wis. housed hundreds of captured German soldiers. German men and boys (some were 16, maybe younger) were hired out for labor on farms and canneries throughout the area.
From 1944 to 1945, nearly 200 German POWs, captured after Allied victories in North Africa and Italy, lived at Whitewater State Park. More than one hundred prisoners lived near Galesville at about the same time. The Whitewater POWs were transported there from a large prison camp in Iowa each summer for seasonal work.
"I did have two very hardcore Nazis that were SS (elite Schutzstaffel) troops," recalled Albert Wild of Lakeside Canning Company in Plainview, according to a history compiled by Whitewater State Park Naturalist Elroy Preuhs. "They were always planning to escape. They were finally both taken care of," Wild continued. Preuhs explained that being "taken care of" probably meant they were detained at the Iowa prison camp year-round and denied the opportunity to get out on the farms.
Indeed, a chance to get out may be a good way to describe POWs' perspective of their summer work. From all accounts, they were eager and good help. "Prisoners openly appreciated being out of the war scene," wrote Preuhs.
Anything is better than being on the front lines, joked retired University of Kansas professor and Whitewater POW scholar Richard Musser.
For many Americans, the captured German soldiers were a spectacle. According to accounts, the Whitewater Park Office was swamped with visitors inquiring about the park's unusual guests. Each week, "hundreds of persons drove many miles to see the prisoners," reported the St. Charles Press in 1945.
"It's an interesting kind of relationship that grew up between the people and the prisoner of war," Musser said. What he described as a sort of "separate peace" emerged between the prisoner-workers and area locals. Many of the farmers and communities POWs labored for had strong German heritage themselves. Until anti-German sentiment during World War I quashed the practice, German was an unofficial second language throughout the area, Musser said. He related stories of POWs elsewhere in Minnesota marrying local women and returning to the land of their former imprisonment after the war. In another case, Musser says, one German man who immigrated to Minnesota before the war, had a brother who was a POW at a nearby camp.
Whether because of those cultural bonds or simple goodness, it was not uncommon for farmers to invite prisoners to their table after a hard day in the fields. "One woman told me when she was a child, the rule was that you couldn't have the prisoners inside your house, so they took the table outside," Musser explained.
"Feeding dinner to the soldiers occurred quite frequently throughout the farming community despite the rather strong verbal reprimands made to farmers by the captain of the camp," Preuhs wrote.
While the captain wanted to make it clear that these men were captured enemy soldiers, ironically, those men contributed mightily to the American war effort. The American farms that fueled U.S. soldiers and ship-builders were in a desperate labor shortage at the time. One Associated Press wire story reported that the federal government estimated in 1943 that U.S. farms needed 500,000 to 750,000 more hands to successfully gather the harvest. By helping bring in and can the vegetables and grains of farms throughout the region, POWs played a key role in the war-time economy. According to one St. Charles Press article, in 1944, POWs were involved in more than half of the corn and pea harvesting and canning in the state of Minnesota.
German workers received a small amount of money for their labor that they could spend at the prison camp canteen. Available reports were unclear on what could be bought at the canteen, but apparently prisoners had access to one valued comfort. "Each German was allowed two bottles of beer a day, and he never failed to consume his allotment," reported the Winona Republican-Herald. An American military policeman told the newspaper, "They say this beer is weaker than the stuff they have at home, but they like it just the same."
Most of the POWs maintained a steadfast certainty that Hitler would win the war, the commander of the Whitewater camp told the Winona Republican-Herald. Preuhs wrote, "While on frequent marches from camp to the town of Elba, [the POWs] would pick out 'their' farms in the valley for when Hitler would win the war."
If former POW Ernest Kohlneick was among those planning for Hilter's victory, he did not let the outcome of the war ruin his memories of America. He returned to Whitewater in 1976 and gave an interview with park naturalist Dave Palmquist. According to the St. Charles Press, Kolneick said that prisoners were comfortable, but worried about their families as Germany was bombarded and then invaded. "The people who worked in the cannery were very, very kind to us," he told Palmquist.
"I don't think it's revisionist history," Musser said, when asked if accounts of German POWs enjoying their time in America were biased. Though, "there came a point in 1945 when things got tougher, when people found out about the death camps and concentration camps," he continued. The war ended not long after those discoveries, and German POWs were returned by the following spring.
Little remains of the POW camp at Whitewater today. Fourteen buildings were erected during the New Deal era by the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration. A tornado destroyed much of the camp in 1953, Preuhs reported, and the rest was torn to down to make way for what is now the park's south campground. At the crest of the hill next to this campground the camp's water tower still remains.
stories of camp
Dr. Musser will give a presentation, with photographs and stories from the camp, its prisoners, and their American acquaintances, on Wednesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. at the St. Charles Public Library, 125 West 11th Street.
"There are still people who remember this," Musser said. "I am hoping people will tell me their stories," he continued. Musser invited anyone with photographs, diaries, first-hand accounts, or other primary documents from that time to aid in his ongoing research by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.