Corn Belt Diplomacy

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in our January 2010 issue.

As a summer sunrise awoke the Clinton County countryside, Barbara Williams Bay steered a truck packed with day laborers along a narrow road
toward a farm near Wilmington. It was 1945, America was at war, and she was 21 years old—probably about the same age as most of the
dozen or so guys huddled behind her in the truck’s open bed, on their way to detassel corn in her father’s fields.

Suddenly, a state trooper raced up and stopped the truck. Her driving was fine. But she was unarmed and unescorted, and the trooper apparently spotted the large “PW” letters on the work crew shirts. The officer read her the riot act. “He told me never to do this again,” recalls Williams Bay, now 85, who still lives close to the family farm near State Route 73. “He pointed at me and said, ‘Those are prisoners of war you’re driving!’

“Of course, I knew, but I didn’t think about it like that,” she adds. “They were just quiet men helping us on the farm.”

After young Barbara’s brush with the law, other arrangements were made for transporting the German POWs from their Wilmington prison camp to the Williams’s farm. But her family’s attitude toward the prisoners remained rather relaxed. She pitched in with her mother each morning, feeding them a hearty breakfast set out on long wooden tables in a barn near the chicken house. She recalls that once, after a day in the fields, a prisoner asked in broken English if the family owned a piano. “We let him in the house and he played classical music,” she says. “We invited him in several times after that, and he played beautifully.” After the war, her father corresponded briefly with one prisoner as if he had been an exchange student on the farm.

Now, 65 years later, the sticky issue of foreign combatants living in U.S. communities has resurfaced again, as President Obama tries to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp on the Cuban shore, where al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives (among some other not-so-lucky “foreign nationals” swept up in our massive anti-terror dragnet) have been held since shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Obama says he wants to end “a sad chapter in American history,” but the problem of what to do with the remaining 125 Guantanamo detainees has touched off pitched political battles. As Congress considers high-security U.S. locations such as Colorado’s “supermax” federal prison and opponents propose the “Keep Terrorists Out of America Act,” it’s hard to imagine a time when prisoners of war were regarded with only slightly more trepidation than AFS scholars.

Perhaps a short history lesson is in order. From 1943 to the end of World War II, there were more than 500 POW camps on U.S. soil, containing 371,683 German and 50,273 Italian soldiers captured in the conflict. What kept hundreds of communities from erupting in 1940s-style “keep ’em out” protests? The same thing that has recently prompted some struggling U.S. towns to offer to take today’s Gitmo detainees into their prisons. To co-opt an old campaign slogan: It’s the economy, stupid! Except that POW work camps didn’t create jobs; they created employees.

At least that was the case in Wilmington, where in the summer of ’45, German troops helped save the harvest. It’s a little-known nugget of local history that’s fading as time claims folks from the Greatest Generation. But it’s worth remembering. In southwest Ohio, for one summer, we had the enemy inside our gates. And up close, it seems, there wasn’t much to fear.

The U.S. began operating POW camps in America in part to ease the burden on Great Britain. The small island had been interning prisoners since the war began in 1939, and as the tide turned in the Allies’ favor, their numbers became overwhelming. One of the places pressed into service was Camp Perry, a training center for the Ohio National Guard in northern Ohio. From there, the German prisoners were deployed to work crews across the state. With able-bodied men fighting overseas, the U.S. faced a labor shortage, especially in agriculture. And in 1945, the labor shortage led POWs to Wilmington, 48 miles northeast of Cincinnati.

The Wilmington camp is a peculiar, obscure slice of our local history. It only operated for three months, but held more than 200 prisoners at its peak. Constructed on open land at what is now Doan Street and Marlena Drive, it had all the trappings of a prison: tall fence, lights on high poles, and guards. But it was in walking distance of the city’s quaint downtown and—ironically—it neighbored Wilmington College, an institution founded by Quakers, America’s iconic pacifists.

If you go to Wilmington in search of the POW story, the Clinton County Historical Society will send you straight to 81-year-old Ted Vandervort, a retired insurance agent and custodian of a piece of history that he experienced firsthand. As a teenager, he interacted with German prisoners at his father’s corn cannery in Jamestown, a few miles northeast of Wilmington. As he sees it, the Wilmington camp may not have needed the high fence. Stuck in a small town in the middle of North America, “The prisoners had no place to go,” Vandervort points out. And as he spent time with the men, he realized that escape wasn’t the first thing on their minds. The POWs arrived in southwest Ohio two months after Germany’s surrender to the Allied forces. They might not have known all the details of the grueling campaign that led up to the victory, but they knew that their homeland had taken a beating. “They were more worried about their families back home,” he says.

The government secured the camp property next to the college from landowner Hubert Barrett. “It was an open area where we kept saddle horses,” recalls Ethel Dennis, Barrett’s daughter. Barrett’s son, Briggs, recalled it as well, when he was interviewed last summer. The 89-year-old Briggs, who passed away recently, said he “paid it no mind” while he worked at a feed mill a few blocks away. “Either my dad or a security guard told me to stay away from the place,” he said.

Camp Perry deployed the POWs to Wilmington because area farms and canneries had requested them, filing a “certificate of need” to vie for the cheap labor. The camp opened in July 1945, with prisoners arriving in time to help with the labor-intensive work of detasseling the hybrid seed corn (removing the pollen-producing top of the plant so it can cross-pollinate correctly) and staying through harvest and canning in September. Farmers paid the government 10 cents an hour for each prisoner, who, in turn, earned credits to buy cigarettes and chewing gum. Typically, groups of 10 were deployed to each work site, traveling the rutted rural routes in the morning and returning to the internment site at night. And by all accounts, they put in an honest day’s work. In an interview that summer with the Wilmington Daily News-Journal, Clinton County agriculture agent Walter Bluck declared that the prisoners showed, “an adaptability to do farm work when given detailed instruction and supervision.” Or, as Vandervort remembers it, “not a lazy one in the bunch.”

But that respect had to be earned. They were, after all, the enemy. And they were coming to a place where the war had taken a toll. When the women working at the Jamestown Canning Company first learned they would toil alongside German soldiers—people who’d fought their husbands and sons overseas—they threw down their gloves and threatened to quit. “Dad held a meeting and described how healthy and strong they were,” Vandervort says. Give ’em a chance to prove themselves, he cajoled his angry crew.

“After a week, the women were bringing pies and cigarettes to the prisoners because they were so helpful,” Vandervort says, laughing. “We found out they were human beings just like us.”

Typically, the prisoners directed to U.S. POW camps were soldiers who’d been drafted into the German army; not card-carrying Nazis but men who’d been conscripted and separated from their families and homeland by a war. Perhaps discovering that softened the hearts of the cannery fraus. For whatever reason, Vandervort says, “there was a lot of fear before it happened, but not afterwards.”

Vandervort remembers the summer taking on a rhythm of its own. Each morning, Rev. Bruce Brooks from Jamestown drove to Wilmington and loaded prisoners in his rickety church bus. When time allowed, he’d share a few words from the Bible. An armed military guard accompanied the group into the cannery. Then the guard stowed his rifle in an office with Vandervort’s mother and helped out in the factory. Vandervort recalls that there were prisoners as young as 15 and as old as 45, including a physician. One spoke broken English and forwarded orders to the others. The machinery was off limits to the Germans—there wasn’t enough time to train them to operate it—so they boxed cans of Buc-N-Ear corn, the company’s mainstay product, stacked the heavy cases in the warehouse, and lugged 100-pound sacks of sugar and salt to the second floor processing room.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of rural life knows that in agriculture, the margins are slim and the difference between success and ruin can depend on something as minor as a rainy weekend or a broken axle. And that’s where the Jamestown Canning Company found itself as the growing season drew to an end. Before the cannery’s last field was picked, a hard rain made the ground too soft to operate the harvest equipment. With profits on the line, the cannery sent a supervisor and six prisoners out armed with bushel baskets. “Our guy asked if we were afraid the Germans would try to escape,” Vandervort remembers. “But they weren’t going anywhere. They picked the ears by hand and filled up one bushel basket after another and took them to a wagon at the road.” Sixty-four summers later, Vandervort is still touched by what they accomplished. “On that day,” he says, “the prisoners saved our crop.”

By mid-October, the Wilmington prisoners were headed back to Camp Perry. On their last day at the Jamestown cannery, they presented Rev. Brooks, their bus driver, with a cedar chest they’d hand-carved in their free hours at the camp. The Wilmington Daily News-Journal reported that the gift was given to Brooks for the kindness he’d shown to “these unfortunate prisoners”—a phrase that speaks volumes about how the community had come to view the men. In the short time that they’d been in Wilmington, Japan had surrendered, the war had ended, and the prisoners were on the verge of finally going home. But what repatriation would mean in battle-scarred Europe was anybody’s guess. The Wilmington Daily News-Journal described notes written by prisoners to Rev. Brooks, asking him to pray for their uncertain futures.

The prison camp vanished as swiftly as it had been erected. Another group of POWs came to dismantle it, and by Christmas Barrett’s property was an open field once again, though the end of the war meant it didn’t stay empty for long. Within a few years, Barrett parceled the acreage for tract housing. If there was any evidence of the work camp, it was swallowed up in the post-war building boom that rocketed small towns like Wilmington into the modern age.

But not all of the locals forgot about the POWs that easily. There was Barbara Williams Bay’s dad, corresponding with a prisoner as if he were a foster son. And Vandervort protects in clear plastic a fragile, and most poignant, reminder: A letter written in 1946 by a former prisoner named Gunther Verhle to Vandervort’s father. In it, Verhle describes a grim French prison that he endured for several months after leaving the States. “We did not have the good eats and drinks, and especially, we missed the smokes,” Verhle wrote, clearly missing his salad days in Wilmington. Then he tells of finding his home in Germany in ruins and a severe food shortage across his defeated nation. “I have a craving for the good products you are making at the cannery and all of the other good things we received from you.”

Countless times over the years, Vandervort has driven by the former camp site, now a neighborhood that sits in the shadow of the college football stadium. Often he looks at the tiny houses and wonders if the residents have any idea what once stood on their property.

“Even back then, few people knew about it,” he says. “Now, even fewer of us are still around who actually saw it. That’s how these things go.”

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