Every so often a guy hears of something that doesn’t quite seem true, such as a prisoner of war camp out in the middle of the prairie. As unlikely as this might sound, there really was such a camp once upon a time in Algona.
My wife and I recently had occasion to be in Algona, so we took a tour of the Camp Algona POW Museum. Said tour was conducted by Jerry Yocum, one of the Museum’s directors.
“Camp Algona housed POWs, most of them German, from April 1944 until February 1946,” Yocum explained. “About 3,000 POWs were in the camp at any one time and a total of about 10,000 were sent through.”
The prairie prison camp was the hub of a POW distribution system. Prisoners were dispatched from Algona to dozens of branch camps located across Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas.
“Many of the prisoners were put to work on farms,” said Yocum. “There was a huge labor shortage because of the war.”
Um … let’s get this straight: Midwestern farm boys were sent to fight in Europe and some of the Germans they captured were sent back here to work on Midwestern farms?
“That’s right,” said Yocum. “POWs performed a wide variety of tasks, from milking cows to making bricks, from digging ditches to cutting timber. They were paid 10 cents an hour, a sum that was proscribed by the Geneva Convention.
“And they were paid in script that could only be used for purchases at the camp canteen.”
What did the community think of having all those POWs so close at hand?
“The German POWs proved to be polite and hard-working. Still, it must have felt strange to watch a POW shock your grain and wonder, ‘Did he shoot at my son?'”
My wife and I watched a short video included a Kossuth County woman recounting how her father hired four POWs to work at their farm when she was 12. She told how strange and exciting it was when the POWs and their armed U.S. Army guard arrived at their farm.
I later asked Yocum if there were any escapes.
“One small group broke out of Camp Algona by digging under an unused guard tower, but were soon recaptured. They stole some civilian clothes and spoke fluent English, but their heavy German accents gave them away.
“A couple of POWs who were working at Lake Itasca tried to escape by stealing a canoe. They thought they could simply float down the Mississippi and arrive at New Orleans in a few days. But they didn’t realize that the river goes north before it heads south. In two weeks they had paddled a couple of hundred miles, but were only 35 miles further south. By then they were tired and hungry and glad to be recaptured!”
The museum has a display containing some translated writings by POWs. There are letters to and from home, along with a smattering of poetry. Most of the missives are about longing for home and anticipated reunions with loved ones.
An extraordinary chronicle written by one POW describes how his capture and subsequent consignment to Camp Algona led to his meeting an older brother for the very first time.
The writer had been born a couple of years after his
older brother who had emigrated from Germany to Iowa. The POW related how he became increasingly excited as he saw more and more signs that read “Iowa” as he rode a prisoner train into the depths of America.
Upon arriving at Camp Algona, the POW asked if a meeting with his brother could be arranged. It could and it was. One can scarce imagine the emotions at such a meeting.
Numerous pieces of POW art are on display at the Museum, ranging from droll cartoon sketches to lush portraits to intricate woodworking.
“The materials to make this art were purchased by the POWs themselves,” explained Yocum. “The art was then given to local residents as a way to thank them for their gracious treatment of the POWs.”
Perhaps the most striking is a large Nativity scene constructed by the POWs. Containing 65 half-scale figures, it’s proudly displayed each Yuletide at the Kossuth County Fairgrounds.
“After the Nativity scene was completed, the POWs presented it to the community and put on a Christmas program,” said Yocum. “I understand it was very affecting when the choir sang, ‘Silent Night’ in the original German.”
Was there any continued contact between former POWs and local folks after the war?
“Yes, several stayed in touch with the POWs who had worked for them. Europe was in tatters after the war, so some area families sent care packages. The friendships thus formed have endured to this day.”
A POW camp out in the middle of the prairie might seem improbable. But just as improbable are former enemies forging a bond that reflects the true sentiments of “Silent Night.”
Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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