My earliest memory of talk about camps for prisoners of war is the embarrassing old television show, Hogan’s Heroes. I liked the show — it was funny. I had no idea, however, that very often real prisoners of war did not have a secret tunnel under the barracks or a buffoon for a camp commander or a soft-hearted guard. It wasn’t until I began studying about WWII that it became clear to me that our servicemen who spent time in Nazi or Japanese internment camps lived through horrors never in the script of Hogan’s Heroes. Starvation, disease, and other horrible maltreatment was rampant in the POW camps in which Allied soldiers were kept.
On Wednesday, at 7 p.m. at the St. Charles Library, there will be a lecture given about the prisoner-of-war camp that existed in Whitewater during WWII. It apparently was a seasonal camp, and prisoners would be transported there from a larger camp in Iowa. While here, they helped farmers get the harvest in, and worked in the vegetable canning plant in Plainview.
Apparently the prisoners at the Whitewater facility were treated well, not only by those who ran the camp, but by the farmers and cannery owners where they worked.
This area has a huge population of people with German ancestry, outstripping those with Polish roots. During WWII, many German-Americans would have been fairly recent immigrants themselves, many of whom spoke German at home. Until the outbreak of the war, there was a very popular German newspaper, The Westlicher Herold, published in Winona at Leicht Press. As you can imagine, especially after the revelations of Nazi atrocities toward the end of WWII, the German language became less popular, and the newspaper’s reach was far diminished.
What must it have been like for the farmers of this area to meet young men with whom they shared common national roots? We understand that most soldiers are not at heart warmongers. For the most part, men in the armed services of any country are only doing their patriotic duty. Unfortunately, citizens of a nation, whose goal is to live a peaceful and prosperous life attained by hard work, are not the same people who are in political power. Often it is forced upon a citizenry to uphold the cruel and inhumane agenda of its leaders.
To those farm families around Whitewater State Park, and to workers at the cannery, the German prisoners must have seemed like brothers, cousins, uncles, friends — no different at all from themselves. Is it any wonder that Americans, when meeting such a familiar man, but who is still a prisoner of war, would treat him with the same goodness they treated their countrymen?
There is a story about the “Christmas truce” of 1914, during WWI, when soldiers began to exchange greetings with the enemy forces in opposing trenches. Many even gathered in the “no man’s land” between the trenches and exchanged food and souvenirs.
People don’t want war. But it seems it can’t be avoided. We must protect ourselves and our friends from tyrants and terrorists, mustn’t we? It is not a coincidence that these tyrants and terrorists most often come from nations populated by the uneducated. Chairman Mao was able to reign over the Chinese people for so long by capitalizing on the demoralized state of a citizenry ruled so long by warlords, and by denying the young people an education during the “Cultural Revolution.” The people of countries ruled by outlaw groups such as Al Qaeda are also prevented from becoming educated.
For us to remain free, we must have a quality education system that teaches our children the liberal arts without political overtones or a revisionist slant. And it must be available to all, no matter socio-economic status or ethnicity. Without that, our children are subjected to the whims of tyrants and become the tools of war. Without education there is no hope of peace.