POW camps in Missouri revisited in presentation

Friday, April 30, 2004

During the 1940s, Missouri's landscape was dotted with barbed wire and watch towers surrounding 15,000 German and Italian soldiers imprisoned in concentration camps throughout the state.

It's one of history's little-known chapters, one that St. Louis writer David Fiedler has captured in his book, "The Enemy Among Us: German and Italian POWs in Missouri during World War II."

Fiedler, who has family in Cape Girardeau County, will give a 30-minute slide show presentation on the prisoner-of-war camps at 6 p.m. today at the Cape Girardeau County Historical Society's annual spring banquet.

"There are really no physical traces of the camps left," Fiedler said. "But the friendships formed between the people and the prisoners still exist. The prisoners took a little bit of Missouri back to Europe with them."

Fiedler became interested in the camps after seeing a cistern with the words "built by the German prisoners of war" on it.

"I wanted to learn more about them, but in trying to find more I realized there wasn't anything out there," Fiedler said. "World War II had a lot of really traumatic events, big-news battles that captured a lot of attention. In the whole scheme of things, this was very much humdrum, backwater activity."

He initially pitched the idea for writing a story to the magazine Missouri Life, worked a year on the magazine project and then eventually decided to write a book on the subject. Fiedler spent more than two years gathering information and photographs, talking with people who remembered the camps and writing the book, which became available last October.

According to Fiedler, many Southeast Missouri farmers encouraged the government to establish camps here so that prisoners could replace the farm hands who had been drafted. Some Missourians were concerned about the danger of having POWs close to their homes.

"Most of the time they turned out to be 18- or 20-year-old boys who weren't nearly as fierce or frightening as the locals thought they'd be," Fiedler said.

There were four main camps with between 2,000 and 5,000 prisoners each near Fort Leonard Wood, Ste. Genevieve, Neosho and Nevada. Smaller branch camps were sprinkled throughout the state, including in Charleston and Sikeston.

Margaret Beggs, member of the Cape Girardeau County Historical Society, said Fiedler was chosen for this year's banquet after another speaker gave a presentation on World War II last year.

"It's a topic not a lot of people know about, and I think his slides should make it very interesting," Beggs said.

The banquet is open to the public, but Beggs said there are only a few openings left and reservations are required.

cclark@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 128


Want to go?

What: Historical society annual banquet

Where: Zion Lutheran Church, Gordonville

When: 6 p.m. today

Reservations: 243-5887

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