POW book details unique time in American history


Staff writer

If you've ever wanted to know more about the Geneva Convention, check out a new book, "Prisoners of War in Kansas, 1943-1946," by historians Lowell A. May and Mark P. Schock.

The first chapter contains a summary of the Geneva Convention, a lengthy document which was adopted in 1932 and sets forth conditions on how prisoners of war are to be treated.

The Geneva Convention was responsible for bringing German prisoners of war to the United States during World War II.

One stipulation was that "prisoners of war shall be evacuated within the shortest possible period after their capture to depots located in a region far enough from the zone of combat for them to be out of danger."

All of Europe and North Africa was a combat zone, and after POW camps in the United Kingdom were full, the decision was made to bring POWs to the United States.

The military used so-called "liberty" ships to transport the POWs. These ships delivered men and material to North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Europe, and then returned to the U.S. with German or Italian POWs.

POW camps were established throughout the United States. Kansas had three main camps and several branch camps, including one at Peabody.

The book devotes a chapter to each of the three main camps and 13 branch camps in Kansas. The Peabody camp remained in operation for more than two years, longer than most.

Because so many young American men (195,000 from Kansas) had been drafted or had joined the war effort, there was an acute shortage of labor, especially in the agricultural sector. The Geneva Convention authorized the use of enlisted POWs as laborers.

At the request of at least 17 Peabody area farmers, a camp was established at Peabody in the fall of 1943. The prisoners came from the main camp at Concordia.

On Sept. 11, 1943, 60 German POWs arrived in Peabody. Another 52 arrived the following week.

At first, the camp was located south of town at an old creamery site. Prisoners and guards were quartered in tents but by the end of November, all were moved into town.

The Eyestone Building on West Second Street, a large brick structure which at the time was being used as a garage, was remodeled to accommodate the prisoners. It still exists and now is Heckendorn Equipment Co.

Guard towers were situated at two corners, and an outside exercise area was enclosed with a high fence.

An official investigation into reports that the prisoners were being "coddled," revealed that the officer in charge was running the camp "according to the letter of the law," as set forth in the Geneva Convention. Prisoners were fed the same as American soldiers and were provided various means of recreation.

As the spring of 1944 approached, at least 75 farmers expressed an interest in using the POWs on their farms, and the decision was made to keep the camp open.

While at work, prisoners were supposed to eat separate from the farm family, but often they were invited into the farmhouse to share the noon meal. Most of the farmers had German backgrounds, so they related well with the POWs. Some even became longtime friends.

Several Marion businessmen, community leaders, and area newspapers expressed opposition to the "nice" treatment afforded the prisoners.

A group of Peabody high school boys attacked a group of prisoners for ruining their football field with their soccer games. Thereafter, a local farmer offered one of his fields on the outskirts of town to be used for that purpose.

In May, 1945, as the war came to a close, there were 185 German POWs at the camp. They continued to work on farms until Dec. 3, 1945, when they were removed and eventually returned to Germany.

Personal recollections

One of the most interesting features of the book is the personal recollections of prisoners, townspeople, and farm family members who observed the POWs or interacted with them.

Mary Olson, now mayor of Marion, was a little girl at the time the POWs were brought to work on the family farm at Peabody.

"I think I was more afraid of the guard with a gun than of the prisoners," she said.

She has a model of a military vehicle made by POW Heinz Stegelmann.

Elizabeth Sebree worked in the drug store. She said she and other young girls were more interested in the American guards than in the prisoners.

Joan Berns remembered when people came from Marion to protest with picket signs.

L. Orlene Scrivner was a young farm wife living on the edge of Peabody. She said some of the POWs were afraid they would be sent to Russia after returning to Germany. They left behind inlaid cigar boxes and other handiwork.

Gwen Gaines, then a young farm wife, recalled that the men who worked for her father-in-law, Tony Gaines, were "very intelligent and very pleasant to be around."

Karen Suderman Penner was only six or eight years old when the prisoners worked for her dad. She remembered them sitting around the table with her family at noon and speaking German with her parents.

Mildred Claassen Voran observed that if her mother gave the POW workers plenty of food, they worked harder. One prisoner later sent a gift and a thank you note from Germany.

Leonard Wiebe recalled that POWs helped his father fill silo in the fall. He said the family got along well with them.

Wilbert Wiebe worked on a farm owned by people who did not speak German. When they used POWs, he acted as translator.

Many more interesting details are disclosed in the book.

"Prisoners of War in Kansas, 1943-1946," was published by KS Publishing, Inc., Manhattan, in 2007. The book is available at the local library. It can be purchased from the website:, or by calling I-800-258-1232.