German POWs kept farms goingPublished 10:39pm Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Half a million German prisoners of war (POWs) helped short-handed farmers, including those in southwest Michigan, meet labor demands during World War II.
A capacity crowd Wednesday evening moved retired Western Michigan University professor Howard Poole’s Spring Lecture Series-ending talk from the Museum at Southwestern Michigan College into a larger space in adjacent Dale A. Lyons Building.
Berrien County’s first detachment arrived Oct. 2, 1943, when 374 men arrived in Benton Harbor by train and made the Naval Reserve Armory their home.
Banks arranged POW labor, including loans if farms needed them. Some showed up at Van Buren Fairgrounds in Hartford, then returned to Battle Creek after harvest in the fall. A band played to bid them farewell.
A Decatur grower, Harry Becker, not only relied on German POWs, he went to Arkansas and brought 80 Japanese to help with celery and tomato crops.
Coloma accommodated 582 prisoners in 1945. They were also placed in Allegan, Sodus and Mattawan.
In 1944, POWs powered Dowd Farms, Hilltop Orchards, the William Zech Farm, Burnette Farms in Keeler, the William Prillwitz Farm in Eau Claire, Bronte Vineyards in Keeler, Klett Farms and the Becker and Schuur farms in Decatur. The Decatur Republican wrote about prisoners working for Harry Becker and George and Jerry Schuur. The young laborers were said to be good workers who didn’t speak a lot of English — but understood more than they said.
Frantz Jamascek, 29, escaped from the Prillwitz Farm, turned himself in at Hartford, asked a guard to shoot him and eventually threw himself in front of a train.
It was also reported that Walter Goebbels, captured in Italy and sent to Hartford to dig ditches, was the nephew of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propagandist.
Harvey Ross said he first heard about the prisoner population through his wife, Janet, the retired Dowagiac school nurse, who had been an exchange student in Germany. While visiting her host sister, a burly man surprised them by saying, “I know where that is” because he had been shot down in North Africa and incarcerated here.
Despite anti-fraternization rules, audience members reported POWs going to dances in Benton Harbor and hitchhiking to Battle Creek, where the largest area camp was located at Fort Custer until 1945.
Fort Custer functioned as a military police replacement training center.
Temporary tents were replaced by wood-framed barracks.
Camps originally were concentrated in the South because warm weather meant not having to heat housing, but eventually every state but North Dakota, Nevada and Vermont had POW camps.
Farmers faced the dilemma of the government setting higher food production standards, which they couldn’t meet with many employees away at war. Gasoline and tire rationing made travel tough for laborers who typically came long distances.
Desperate, they appealed to the government. The Army, tasked with placing prisoners arriving by the thousands on returning troop ships, responded.
Teichman’s Tree-Mendus Fruit between Eau Claire and Indian Lake, home of the international cherry pit spit, was known as Skyline Orchards. An American soldier guarded details of 10 prisoners. The Army furnished bologna and hard bread for lunch, but Herb Teichman’s mom, convinced a well-fed workforce would be more productive, supplemented meals with soup, spaghetti and chili.
Prisoners earned 50 cents for a nine-hour day.
A woman who worked at one of the farms said they made 25 cents an hour for a 59-hour workweek.
Another man said POWs received scripts worth about 10 cents for each hour worked and used them to purchase items in the commissary. Relying on POWs in fields and packing worked so well it continued another two years. A man who was a teen on a vegetable farm outside Plainwell remembers the Germans as “nice guys who loved it here.”
Those unsuited for farm work found niches repairing tractors, trucks and even weapons, as well as mending uniforms.
Drawing on the book, “We Were Each Other’s Prisoners,” by WMU colleague Lewis Carlson, Poole plotted the circuitous path of one German POW, Karl Hackworth from Berlin, where his unit of 6,000 assembled in the Olympic Stadium; sent to defend Italy at Anzio Beach; surrendered near Mussolini Canal in East Italy near the Adriatic Sea; the train from Norfolk, Va., to Fort Custer, where volume and richness of food sickened some; transfer to Romulus Air Force Base outside Detroit, where he met his future American wife, Stella; two years imprisoned in Britain; then his return to a 33-year career with the Ypsilanti state mental hospital.