Held on the Homefront

What do you know about German POWs held in the United States during World War II?
If you are like me, your answer would be “Not much.” In fact, I knew almost nothing about it until we were contacted by the Traces Museum of St. Paul, Minnesota, to see if we would be interested in hosting a traveling exhibit on the topic.
That exhibit will be here for one day only on April 14th. It is housed in a bus that has been converted into a mobile museum, complete with seating for presentations.
The Traces staff call this particular exhibit “Held on the Homefront.” When I started discussing the possibility of having it here, I found that plenty of people interested in history, and particularly Pittsylvania County history, knew about those POWs. You see, there was a camp in Sandy Level and some folks who were young then still remember seeing the POWs working in the fields of their family farms.
Glenn Giles mentioned to me that Herman Melton had a chapter in his book Southside Virginia: Echoing Through History, that mentioned this camp, so I looked it up. According to Melton, most of the German POWs were sailors who had been on U-boats. They were used to alleviate a shortage of labor, and many found themselves working in agriculture. By the end of the war, there were 17,000 POWs in Virginia alone, and 168 of them were in Sandy Level, housed in what had been a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. From what I have been told, the camp is still visible today because one of the old barracks is still standing.
My dad is a World War II vet, so I casually asked him if he remembered anything like this in Ohio. He definitely did. He said that in Ohio the POWs also worked in agriculture, primarily in picking tomatoes, and that there were plenty of people who did not want them around and were frightened to have them in the community.
The fear of these prisoners was probably a normal reaction, but it is the mission of Traces to gather, preserve and present stories of people who encountered each other during World War II with the hope that we might now rise above the fears that demean us all. It is certainly a lesson that is pertinent to our own time in history.
If you want to learn more about these POWs and their life in the United States, come to the newly renovated Chatham Train Depot on Thursday, April 14, any time from 10 am until 4 pm and meet Irving Kellman, the Traces docent, and see the exhibits depicting this era in our shared history.

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