Traces of POW History in Iowa

The stories of World War II German, Italian and Japanese prisoners of war held in Iowa are featured. This program aired in 2003.


Morgan: Most documentaries about prisoners of war tell of the extremes... extreme hardships faced by P.O.W.s from many wars in many nations. And during World War II, there's no denying that many of the 130,000 American prisoners of war faced grim conditions, cruelty, and even death at the hands of their captors. Despite these undeniable facts, not all prisoner of war camps were unbearable. This is the story of P.O.W.s from Germany who were held in nearly every state in our nation, including Iowa. Prisoners of war in Iowa? Yes, by the thousands. Algona, Iowa, which then had a population of about 5,000, was a P.O.W. hub, which could hold 3,000 P.O.W.s and was responsible for distributing 10,000 prisoners to more than 30,000 branch camps in Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas. Obscured by time and fading memories, this story has resurfaced in recent areas, in part because of an organization called Traces, run by a man named Michael Luick-Thrams. Michael, an author, lecturer, and historian, followed his Quaker roots to study the social impact of World War II. He has immersed himself in the study of relations between Iowans and Germans who have World War II connections, conducting personal interviews with former P.O.W.s in Germany.

Michael: I think Iowans, in general, were very generous to the Germans, very hospitable, tolerant, especially in the time of war. If you consider that their own sons were off fighting in Europe and Asia, it's quite a feat to be about to lose a loved one potentially and yet to receive the enemy and treat him with kindness.

Morgan: Michael found in the P.O.W.s a warmth toward Iowa and the people they met here. The families of P.O.W.s expressed curiosity about those times and this place. The feeling seemed so strong that in 2002 Traces set up a guided tour so the Germans could touch that history and share their stories with Americans.

Christian: The work here was okay and they were treated well. I just came here to know where my father once lived and worked. And I hope I can understand my father a little more than maybe…and he gets more rememberings when I'm back.

Morgan: The tour included a stop at one of the most unusual prison camps, one of the few that still stands. It is the Wildwood Golf Course clubhouse in Charles City. Local history buff, Tracy Sweet, remembers when the P.O.W.s were housed in this building.

Tracy: When I was 6 years old, my mother brought me out here. I do remember—I have some very vivid memories. There was barbed wire. I do remember seeing the soldiers milling around. But some friends of mine remember that they were building houses, the prisoners were, in Charles City. And their parents said, "Don't go over there. There's German prisoners over there." So that's right away where the kids went to see them. And everybody in the town got along with them. I never heard anything bad about anything that happened. They were good workers. They were clean. I heard that this floor in this room, they kept it so clean that they had to refinish it afterwards because they wore the varnish right off the floor by keeping it clean.

Morgan: In Algona, once the main hub of P.O.W. activity, the barracks are all gone. They were cleared away to make room for an airport. But local historians have been collecting stories from those times. When the German families visited, historians invited 94-year-old captain Raymond Glattfelder to reminisce with them.

Raymond: Well, I remember being stationed here from June 1944 until the prisoners of war all went home. and I went home also, approximately 17 months.

Morgan: Captain Glattfelder spent his days in Algona as the adjutant, or manager, of the camp.

Raymond: I'll tell you, I know the prisoners of war were treated well. They were fed well, probably better than they were at home. They were treated real good.

Morgan: Treatment of the prisoners by Americans is a sensitive issue. The military was determined to treat prisoners according to the Geneva Convention rules, providing them with food, clothing, medical care, and work and recreational opportunities. In addition, Iowa was and is widely populated by German immigrants. In the 2000 census more than half of the state's citizens still claimed German ancestry. Back in the 1940s many Iowans could still speak German and did their best to make their former countrymen in the P.O.W camps feel at home. But at the same time, this friendliness was overshadowed by concerns about how American prisoners, many of them Iowans, were being treated overseas.

Michael: It wasn't just out of altruistic motivation that we took such good care of the Germans. We thought—and I think it was accurate—that if the United States treated German P.O.W.s well, that that word would get back to Berlin through the Red Cross base in Switzerland and that Hitler would treat American P.O.W.s better than otherwise would be the case. And that is actually what happened. American P.O.W.s in Nazi Germany were treated much better than Soviet P.O.W.s or even British and French.

Morgan: Here in the Midwest the imprisoned Germans were safe, but lonely and far from their homes and families. Many of them welcomed a chance to work in nearby factories, fields, forests and farms. According to Michael Luick-Thrams, after a short period of adjustment, Midwesterners were glad to have the help.

Michael: Numerous Algonians were frightened that the P.O.W.s would escape, they'd commit crimes, or attack the population. At first there was resistance to putting the base camp there. Once the people realized how much money was going to be generated by Camp Algona, that changed. After the war, the government wrote a report. And indeed, locally, millions of dollars were generated in economic activity. The men harvested a lot of crops. They saved some crops, especially pea crops up in Minnesota.

Morgan: Retired Senator Berle Priebe was in his late 20s when he hired some of the Algona prisoners of war for help on his farm.

Senator Priebe: They were excellent carpenters, very good with stonework and carpentry. So I had some buildings up on our farm that really needed worked on, so we'd go down every morning and pick up four of them and they'd work. We'd always feed them at noon, and there was always a guard that came with them. And these people were really nice to have around. They didn't bother, and they worked good and all that. And the only one I can remember the name of was Fritz Kloping. And he picked our little girls up and carried them around after he ate at noon out at… We had a nice lawn, and he'd walk around and kind of talk to them. And he said, "I've got a little sister in Germany the same age." But he said, "The town has been bombed." So he said, "I really don't know whether they're alive or not." The thing that impressed me was the three of them, they never wanted war. They were forced into the war because of Hitler and because of his SS troops.

Morgan: The prisoners were paid for their work in prison script, money printed just for use in camps. And they used it to buy everything from snacks and cigarettes to just about anything they could want. The international YMCA made sure that the prisoners were given access to entertainment. And with many hours on their hands, the prisoners took up expressing themselves through the arts. Together the German families, Iowa historians, and Traces have collected several thousands of photos and artifacts that show how the prisoners lived and what they designed.

The Traces exhibit, with displays organized by Virginia Cooper of the Muscatine art center, has been touring the Midwest. There are Germans, some complete with cartoons, drawings and paintings. This prisoner's drawing is captioned "Despite Everything: Humor." Some prisoners would buy paint supplies and spend time making scenes of home and family. Many a portrait, like this one of the Camp Algona chaplain, T.K. Herbener, was traded for a carton of cigarettes. Woodworking was a common hobby also. And both Nazi and American symbols found their way into the wood. In some camps, it became tough to keep the broom handles from disappearing and later reappearing as game board pieces.

Then there were the performing arts. The prisoners of Camp Algona took to the stage and performed in plays that were written by their fellow thespians. Some were fantastically staged and costumed. Many prisoners bought musical instruments and organized groups, performing all kinds of music from popular to classical. In Algona a prisoner named Edward Koib made a lasting contribution to the town. He and other prisoners paid for and carved a massive nativity scene. The scene was completed in 1945, and after the war ended was left as a gift for Algona, where it is still open to the public every December. It's a rare, major artwork, unique in that it was created by P.O.W.s of their own volition. After collecting more than 75 hours of P.O.W. stories from Germans and Iowans, plus gathering 1,500 artifacts and holding numerous cultural exchanges and forums, Michael Luick-Thrams says his understanding of the social costs of war has deepened.

Michael: There were many lessons. For me, the most overriding lesson, the most important lesson is that there is no such thing as an enemy. They are friends we haven't yet met. And that human beings ultimately don't really want to kill each other. And they certainly don't want to be killed by one another, but they're forced into the army. They're forced to carry arms and to kill either in terms of self-defense or, in many cases, in offense. And those wars have such deep, lasting—they leave such deep, lasting scars. And those wounds last for decades.

Morgan: And at the same time, Michael has learned that when people are treated with courtesy, despite the constraints of war, the effects of friendship are lasting as well.

Michael: The P.O.W.s were able to form friendships here. Those Germans have never forgotten us, and they were allies. They became friends of us, of the United States for the rest of their lives.

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