- Associated Press - Monday, January 25, 2016

STURTEVANT, Wis. (AP) - Amid the vibrant green farm fields that once covered swaths of Racine County, a problem was growing in the early to mid-1940s.

So many men had been sent off to war overseas that concerns were increasing about how farmers here would be able to harvest their crops. There were shortages of workers for factories, too.

The solution? Nazi prisoners of war.

“When they came down the road they were singing. They had marching songs,” said Joyce T. Schmitt, who along with friends researched and wrote “Camp Sturtevant Wisconsin” about the prisoner of war camp that existed in 1944 and 1945.

The POWs arrived on June 16, 1944 - reportedly singing Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler’s Hitler Youth anthem - and lived in large tents, which they had to erect themselves, according to published accounts maintained by the Racine Heritage Museum. They had to set up the tents, Schmitt said, “and just about the time they set the tents up, it rained and rained and (the) tents blew down. There was nothing there, so they had to do it.”

Schmitt, 89, of Sturtevant, helped create the book with Betty Harmann Luebke, Delores “Lori” Stuart Woiteshek, Laurel Newton Gehrig, Betty Weiss Wilsey, Dorothy Creuziger Klingenmeyer and Ursula Kraus Thillemann, The Journal Times (https://bit.ly/1RCdheV ) reports.

Schmitt and published accounts vary on how many POWs were in the camp: 250 or 350.

The POW camp sat on the northwest corner of 90th Street and Highway 11, said Racine County historian Jerry Karwowski, who operates Oak Clearing Farm & Museum. A used car dealership sits there now, “and behind it there’s new houses,” he said. “Already at 90th you were getting out into the country” at that time.

At the time the camp opened, people flocked to the area - some with picnic baskets so, seemingly, they could have lunch and watch the Nazis, according to published accounts of the day. But they were turned away and sheriff’s deputies had to direct traffic away from the camp because a treatise strictly prohibited nations from putting their POWS on public display.

The Geneva Convention established how prisoners of war were to be treated. This treatise required humane living conditions, including not being confined in irons and receiving food of equal quality to that consumed by that country’s troops.

The Geneva Convention also required that prisoners not be subjected to violence, and be protected from “public curiosity,” so members of the public couldn’t tour the POW camps and were not allowed to fraternize with the prisoners. But in Racine County, Nazi POWs often were sent to work on area farms, and sometimes in factories.

According to published accounts, only one POW at Camp Sturtevant tried to escape, “and he was captured in the outhouse.”

“They wanted to treat them well because there were so many Americans held in Germany. They began working on the farms mostly because so many of our guys were in the service,” said 1945 Horlick High School graduate James Bie, who grew up in Racine and now lives in Palm Desert, California. “After the war, many of them came back as immigrants.”

Bie, 87, who retired in 1994 from a nutritional products company, said he went to school with students whose families had Nazi POWs working on their farms. One boy said he and his brother would work to hoist up bags of grain to put them on a truck. But German POWs “would pick it up with one hand and throw it on the truck,” he added.

He said he returned to Racine last year for his class reunion and he and some of his former classmates talked about the POW camp. Then he began reading about POW camps in Wisconsin.

Schmitt said it was in 1943 when the Racine-Kenosha County Truck Growers Association voiced concerns “about how they were going to get the food out. They had Jamaicans come out (to help previously), but that didn’t work.”

So POWs came by train, working in farmers’ fields, the Nestle plant in Burlington, tomato canning plants in Union Grove and parts of Caledonia. They topped carrots and sugar beets. Area students sometimes were trucked to farms, where they weeded onions along with POWs, published accounts detailed. One woman remembered “some flirtation between American girls” and the young German men, although most of the American teens didn’t speak German.

One Camp Sturtevant POW returned to Racine County, more than 10 years ago, after contacting a church pastor here, Schmitt said.

“He tried to stay after the war was over. I think it was because he knew if he went back he didn’t have anything. He knew his home in Poland was in shambles,” Schmitt said. “But he had to be repatriated.”

He since has died.

“It’s a subject I think is largely forgotten,” Chris Paulson, executive director of the Racine Heritage Museum, said of the Sturtevant POW camp. “It remains a memory with some people. There was some interest 10, 12 years ago. Somebody did a book on it - that’s when I heard about it.”

At one point, there were approximately 30 POW camps in Wisconsin, research shows.

“I think it’s more fascinating because there were so many of them around,” Paulson said of the POW camps.

Paulson said people living in the Midwest don’t always realize how important this territory was to the war effort. Food was grown here, and products made here.

“Even in Wisconsin there were still missile silos,” he said. “You don’t think about bombs being manufactured here, either.”


Information from: The Journal Times, https://www.journaltimes.com

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