On October 3rd, 1990, eleven months after East Germany dismantled the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany became a united and sovereign state for the first time since Germany's defeat in World War II.
What many people don’t know is that during World War II, about 150 German prisoners of war were held in the Red River Valley.
With so many men overseas fighting, the U.S. was experiencing a labor shortage, especially on farms. So the federal government offered to civilian employers POWs as workers, as long as the jobs weren’t dangerous or related to the war effort. They were seasonal workers, paid $2.40 a week – a poor wage even for the ‘40’s. Henry Peterson and Paul Horn took advantage of the offer and brought in 150 prisoners from the prison camp in Iowa to work on their truck farms. Army inspectors were sent to locate suitable housing for the POWs, and a large onion warehouse in north Moorhead was chosen.
On May 28th, 1944, the first 40 Germans arrived, spending the night in tents on Horn’s farm south of town. The remaining 110 POWs arrived three days later and were marched on foot from the NP Depot to the prison camp. The POWs were put to work transforming the warehouse into their barracks, installing a water and sewer system, and constructing an eight-foot wire fence around the perimeter to discourage their own escape.
The camp’s commander soon asked the city to close traffic on the adjoining street, because hundreds of young girls and curious motorists were causing traffic problems, and the Geneva Convention didn’t allow gawking at prisoners.
Farm trucks picked up the POWs and their guards six mornings a week and delivered them back in the evening. The prisoners did general farm maintenance, planted, weeded and harvested crops. Horn and Peterson remembered most of the POWs as likable but a little reluctant to work. Horn estimated that their output of work was about 65% compared to migrant labor from South Texas. “They just couldn’t keep up,” he said.
A few prisoners, particularly those captured in North Africa before Germany’s decline, caused minor problems. A few prisoners broke a pump with a sledgehammer and there was a sit-down strike that ended with 14 prisoners spending a night in the Clay County Jail, but that was unusual. Second in command, T. Sgt. Eric Brasch, told the Fargo Forum, "They still think Germany will win the war. They’re not permitted to see newspapers or listen to the radio, and we don’t tell them anything, so what they know is what they knew when they left the battlefields or whatever rumors they may have heard."
The majority of prisoners were typically viewed as ordinary kids who looked no different than their American peers. Peterson sent flowers and fruit to sick prisoners at Moorhead's St. Ansgar Hospital, and Lt. Blair took the prisoners swimming on Sundays. Prisoners were also treated to two trips to a movie theater and on Saturdays, "Bier and cigarettes". Army regulations didn’t allow the latter, nor would Army command have approved the night the prisoners went to Moorhead’s Magic Aquarium Bar.
The POWs used their camp fence for hanging laundry, and the following year, the fence was simply taken down. Sgt. Roy Schultz remarked, "(They) weren’t going anywhere. Those guys didn’t know where the hell they were."
After the war, one former prisoner wrote to Peterson, "Now I’m return from the United Staates [sic] to my homeland. I have been over there 2_ years, a long time for me. But I did learn the American people and the democratic politik of America.... It was a good school for me. I want to be a democratic citizen here and the most population will the same.... Today I will thank you again through my letter. We have been [not] only good workmen, we have been good fellows, too. Every man likes you and I will never forget your truck farm."
Related to this is an exhibit, Snow Country Prison: Interned in North Dakota which opens tomorrow at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck. This tribal college is located on the former site of a WWII internment camp. The exhibit provides a personal glimpse of the lives of the German and Japanese men who were interned there. It’s up through November 30th.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm
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