In 1975, “the war to end all wars” was a distant memory for many. As a teenager, I was far removed from the reality of a world war, but it wouldn’t be long before I discovered one of the best kept secrets of the war.
I stumbled upon it quite by accident one day working in my Dad’s potato shed--a massive wooden structure built in stages during the early 1940s with a deep basement carved out of the rich Missouri topsoil to provide a dry, cool storage area for the potatoes. Its purpose was for processing and shipping bags of potatoes that my Dad raised in the Missouri River bottoms.
By the time my childhood rolled around, we were still growing potatoes, not just quite as many. The oaken walls were dusty, cobweb catchers. One day as I was cutting string for sewing up the big burlap bags of potatoes, I caught sight of writing on the outer wall. While graffiti wasn’t unusual in the barn, these names were German.
There had to be a story there. I was excited to question my dad that night.
The workers jumped down from the transport truck and broke into various small groups as their work day began. Many were sullen, even gray. The usual three officers made their way across the road to retrieve the morning paper from the farmhouse yard. Reading the local newspaper was a daily ritual—the only way for them to stay connected with their war being waged thousands of miles away.
Despite my German heritage and last name, I knew very little of the language. Over the last few years, as German prisoners of war came to work on my farm, I began to pick up a few words. The officers’ demeanor was reserved as they absorbed the front page news and spoke in low tones. Today, I didn’t have to understand them. I already knew what they had just discovered.
We all had been following the events of the past week with much interest. The war had been going badly for the Germans for quite some time, but the Battle for Berlin, fought from both ends of the continent, sealed the deal squeezing the life out of the Germans like a giant vise grip. It was May 3, 1945. Berlin had succumbed to the pressure and total surrender was imminent.
I watched as Hans & Josef dropped onto the grass in defeat. Captain Schwartz’s fingers gripped the edges of the paper as he plodded through the mire of statistics. What would happen next? Would they try to leave? Would the prisoners become combative when they realized it was all over?
“Mr. Mann? . . . Mr. Mann?” A voice interrupted my thoughts. It was one of the guards from the camp.
“Are you okay? You look sort of funny.”
“Sure. Just wondering how the Germans are going to take the news today.”
“Well, we’ve increased our personnel this week. Should be plenty of support for you in case things get bad.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“They probably won’t be much use to you today anyway.”
“Maybe.” Then I got thinking I should give them a day off. These men had virtually saved my farm operation for the last three years when labor was in short supply. Sure, they were the enemy, but I was thankful for their help.
Suddenly I found myself saying, “Let’s just give them the day off. Okay? Get ‘em back in the truck. Take ‘em back to the camp.”
“Are you sure, Mr. Mann?
“Yeah, I’m sure. They deserve a break today. They’ve been good help to me. I couldn’t have run this farm without them the last few years.”
“Okay, Sir. We’ll see you tomorrow morning. Alright?”
“Yep. See ya tomorrow morning.”
As the guards rounded up the prisoners, I noticed their puzzled looks. The officers made their way back across the street. I think Hans had been crying.
Captain Schwartz approached me tentatively and extended his hand. “Herr Mann.”
“Thank you for your kindness. My men are indebted to you.” His eyes grazed the ground.
I reached out to take his hand in a hearty shake. “No, Sir. It is I who should be grateful. You have saved my farm.”
The Captain’s head lifted. His eyes clouded over and a bright grin shone through the gloom. He pumped my hand up and down. “Danke. Dankeschoen, Herr Mann.”
Author Notes: This fictional piece is based on stories told by my father who used German prisoners of war to work his farm during the World War II years. Two temporary prisoner of war camps were located with 10 miles of his farm in Jackson County, Missouri. More than 450,000 prisoners of war were held on American soil during World War II.
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