Don Noble
9:16 am
Mon July 9, 2007

Guests Behind the Barbed Wire: German POWs in America

Now, Ruth Beaumont Cook has done a splendid job of investigating the story of the POW camp in Aliceville, AL, interviewing those who are still alive and getting down the historical record. Her book is thoroughly researched and intelligently written and ensures that the camp will not be forgotten.

Alabamians, especially west Alabamians, have always known to some degree that during World War II there was a prisoner-of-war camp in Aliceville, in Pickens County. Perhaps because the camp was entirely demolished after the war, down to the last brick, and there is nothing there to see, the Aliceville camp has faded in people's consciousness. There have been, over the years, some newspaper articles and a documentary by Alabama Public Television, and there have been a couple of reunions of American guards and German prisoners, but mostly the camp has faded into the past.

Now, Ruth Beaumont Cook has done a splendid job of investigating the story of the POW camp in Aliceville, AL, interviewing those who are still alive and getting down the historical record. Her book is thoroughly researched and intelligently written and ensures that the camp will not be forgotten.

Cook begins with a description of the sleepy town of Aliceville, hot in summer, dusty, in places swampy, complete with mosquitoes, and of the Parker farm of 400 acres, which was taken by the Army Corps of Engineers, along with another 400 belonging to six other sellers, as the site for the camp.

The U. S. Army, in late 1942, had begun the North Africa Campaign, and as German prisoners were captured there, it was deemed impractical and dangerous to keep them in Great Britain. By the summer of 1943, seventy-two camps had been built in the U.S., and by mid-1945 there were 150 camps and 340 "branch" or work camps.

Natives of Pickens County had at first thought the prisoners were to be Japanese, and were relieved when they turned out to be Germans. In a misspelling bound to fascinate any Freudian, the Pickens County newspaper called the place an "interment," not internment, camp throughout the war, never correcting the spelling.

By May 1943, Aliceville was a large camp, with 400 buildings holding a maximum of 6,000 prisoners, with one thousand U. S. military personnel. There would be a total of 250,000 captured Germans and Italians from North Africa.

The facts in this volume are sufficient to hold the reader's attention, but the anecdotes are priceless. Prisoners in transport ships approaching New York City were astonished to see skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty, intact. They had been told the city had been heavily bombed. When they were taken by trains to Aliceville and other camps in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and even Colorado, journeys of three to five days, they told one another that the Americans were taking them in circles; no country could possibly be this big.

A couple of things about the camp that I found surprising were, one, that our POW camps followed the Geneva Conventions to the letter. The German prisoners got the same food, shelter, medical care, even the same number of square feet of living space as the MPs. This was done in hopes that the Germans would treat U.S. prisoners similarly. And two, inside the camps, true believer Nazis, usually NCO's, often terrorized non-Nazi German soldiers, and some sorting and sifting had to occur, putting the hard-core Nazis in one place and conscripted, nonpolitical or resisting soldiers in another.

The camp was not a bad place to be at all. The prisoners had bands, organized musical evenings, wrote poetry and painted, ran English and French classes, put on plays, and even had a camp newspaper. On April 20th, prisoners?here in the United States?were even allowed to celebrate Hitler's birthday! German prisoners captured at the Russian front were not so lucky. Of the 100,000 taken by the Russians at Stalingrad, only 5,000 got home alive at the end of the war.

Only a couple of Aliceville prisoners were killed trying to escape. It seems some prisoners thought Columbus, Mississippi was Columbus, Ohio, and confused York, Alabama, with New York City. When they realized how far they were from anywhere, attempts stopped.

Once Allied troops had entered Germany and were liberating German stalags and, especially, after the discovery of the death camps, conditions got a lot worse in places like Aliceville. American anger at how badly our soldiers had been treated was enormous. I was in fact surprised to learn that many German POWs were put on labor battalions here and in Belgium, France, and Britain, in America mainly in agriculture and logging, but on the Continent, in mines and in construction. There was a huge labor shortage everywhere, and many Germans did not get home for a year or two after the surrender.

This is a long book, 562 pages of text and 61 pages of notes. It is filled with mini-biographies of German soldiers, American MPs, and Aliceville residents, and can seem a little slow in places, but it is worth the time. This job will not need to be done again, and, most importantly, this story has not been lost.

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