SIKESTON - When we hear the words "prisoners of war" or "POW camps," we think of our American soldiers in miserable places.
But the United States took plenty of prisoners during World War II, too, bringing them thousands of miles to be held on U.S. soil.
"There were close to a half a million of these guys here," said David Fiedler of St. Louis. Of those 15,000 were held right here in Missouri.
Fiedler's book, "The Enemy Among Us: POWs in Missouri During WWII," released in October by the Missouri Historical Press, focuses on these 15,000 men and the experiences of the prisoners and those here who came in contact with them.
Fiedler said he first became aware that prisoners of war were brought to the United States while serving in the military in Texas when he saw a cistern that had been built by German POWs.
It wasn't until 1998 that he found out POWs were held in Missouri after seeing a display at Fort Leonard Wood. "I had never, ever heard about the presence of these 15,000 prisoners," Fiedler said.
Deciding it would make a great story, he first started researching the subject for a magazine. "In 2001, the article appeared in Missouri Life," Fiedler said.
In gathering information for the article, Fiedler sent out letters to newspapers in towns where camps had been and veteran organizations. "I began to hear from people who had first-hand experience with these prisoners," Fiedler said.
Some were farmers who had them as laborers; others were civilians who worked in the camps' administration "or just people that lived in the towns and remembered seeing the prisoners going through town on the back of a truck on their way to work on the farm or remember talking to the prisoners a the camps themselves through the fence."
As he began to conduct the interviews, he soon realized his mental image of POW camps was nowhere near the reality.
"You expect them to be miserable places, but that really wasn't the case here," said Fiedler. While it stands to reason that "a person is not normally going to chose to be a prisoner of war," Fiedler said, "they were treated so well, most looked back with gratitude and a bit of fondness on their time here.
"It was boring sometimes," Fiedler conceded, but POWs were paid to work, were able to interact with people, were fed and treated well and, for the most part, were simply "allowed to pass the time until the war was done... They seemed to enjoy themselves and their work."
As part of the Sikeston Depot's book lecture series, beginning at 7 p.m. Monday, Fiedler will present a slide show of about 50 photos, maps and illustrations and discuss POWs held in Missouri in general as well as particulars about the POWs in this area.
"They went swimming in the Sikeston pool a couple times a week," said Fiedler. "It was event to see them swim and dive."
Prisoners at the Sikeston branch camp were Italians from Camp Weingarten near Ste. Genevieve, one of the four main base camps for the POWs along with Fort Leonard Wood in central Missouri, Camp Crowder outside of Neosho in the state's southeastern corner, and Camp Clark outside of Nevada in eastern Missouri. Each held between 3,000 and 5,000 prisoners. These were supported by about two dozen branch camps, including one in Sikeston, where the labor could be best used to replace farm hands off fighting as soldiers.
All of the POWs held in Missouri were either German or Italian, according to Fiedler: "We had very few Japanese prisoners of war."
He explained that while there were 70,000 Italian and 350,000 German POWs, there were only 5,000 Japanese POWs.
"In large part that was due to the way they fought," Fiedler said, "which was to fight to the death or commit suicide rather than get captured."
The Japanese that were taken prisoner didn't work well in labor camps, so for the most part authorities "just held them" at two camps, one in Iowa and the other in Wisconsin.
Initial fears about the POW camps in Missouri were overcome by the need for the agricultural labor at first, but after time these misgivings "melted away" as the locals came to know "Italians" and "Germans" as just people, and vice versa.
"There was a lot of friendliness and interaction," Fiedler said, "or at least a mutual respect - everybody got along all right for the most part."
In addition to the Sikeston branch camp, other Bootheel branch camps were at Charleston, New Madrid, Marston, Malden and Kennett. These typically held between 50 and 250 POWs and were usually short-term affairs for help with the cotton crops. Fiedler said: "Sikeston was an exception because it was a long-term branch camp."
The Sikeston camp started out with just tents for the prisoners. "At first they were used in corn detassling," Fiedler said. Things went well, however, and the area agricultural association wanted to keep the POWs around.
"They continued to work in the cotton oil mill and on farms in the area - first corn, then cotton and a variety of agricultural tasks," Fiedler said.
Eventually, light wooden barracks were erected to house the Sikeston camp POWs.
While there were Italian immigrants in St. Louis, most people in this area had never met someone of Italian descent and found them exotic and exciting, Fiedler said. "There are still lots of people in Sikeston that remember them being here," he said.
"One of them actually came back and got married to a woman in Sikeston and took up farming," said Fiedler. "He didn't know the woman while he was here."
"All the rest of my family did, but I didn't," confirmed Joy Ghersi of Sikeston. "There was another prisoner of war that I did get to know. He asked me come for a visit and I did." That relationship, however, was purely platonic. "He had already married," Ghersi said. "My father had been kind to him and was trying to repay."
Ghersi's father, E.L. Corbin, was apparently known to many of the POWs for his kindness as one of the camp's hybrid corn supervisors. "My father worked in the processing, getting it ready for sale," she explained.
After the war another prisoner, Felice Ghersi, wrote to Corbin thanking him for kindness. When Corbin put off responding too long, his daughter answered instead, leading to three or four years of correspondence.
"It eventually led to them being married," Fiedler said.
For more information call the Depot at 481-9967.
Book information, photos and additional lecture dates are available at http://MoPOWs.tripod.com