POWS – The human side

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POW Camp 4 001 (Copy)
German POWs marching out of the camp to go to work. Photo courtesy of Annette T. Harris in her book entitled:
World War II Prisoner of War Camps In Wayne County, New York And Their Prisoners

As we think back to World War II, we often think of the German soldier as simply being a Nazi and therefore evil. We know from our write-up about the POW Camp here in Sodus Point, that the German POWS were treated very well and several of them after the war would later relocate their families back here. We sometimes forget that many of them were human beings like us just fighting for their country. Bob Pearson in his book Stinky’s Tales Growing Up in a Small Village in the 1940s and 1950s (2004) brings out their human side……
Prisoners of War – A moral dilemma
On the apple-picking day we were driven to the Sodus Fruit Farm where we were going to gather apples rather than pick them since applies taken off the ground were free to those wishing to gather them. We arrived at the orchards via dirt roads lining the perimeter of the huge three to five acre plots filled with abundantly fruited apple trees. The harvest was going to be a good one, and there were many apples on the ground already so our job was going to be easy. After stopping the car, we walked through several rows of trees to work the ground under the trees being picked that day. The foreman of the farm was there and some other workers were already in the trees as we worked our way under them to gather loose apples off the ground.
My mother started talking to some of the workers and before long I realized she was struggling to communicate since the pickers were, as it turned out, German prisoners of war. They usually were in a stockade just down the road towards Sodus Point, but on this fall day they were out and earning fifty cents a day, according to my sources much later on in my life. Their choice was to stay in camp or earn money just down the road serving a useful purpose. For those Germans picking that day, it was a chance to meet my mother, my brother and me —–
In what was a truly multicultural experience long before such experiences were thought to be good for the soul and for one’s education, my mother was treating me, again, to some of her school teacher wisdom and worldly attitude. We mingled with the men in the trees and were able to gesture and make small talk in German and English. My mother’s guardians the Nothakers taught us all some German and helped develop in us an appreciation for “foreign” food. There Germans were merely workers to me and my brother. Not once did we consider the fact that they were , in fact, POWs.
These POWs were kept in American camps away from communications, railroads, major cities, and large populations by design as it now turns out, according to historians writing about the period. The upstate New York area on Lake Ontario with the five to six month cold climate was great for preventing possible escapes and made for a difficult freedom should an escape be made successfully. The POWs were also those higher echelon type prisoners who needed to be removed from Great Britain and other allied areas so they could not easily be recycled into the German war machine. These men were pilots, seamen and according to some historians, U-boat personnel.
We picked up a couple of bushels of apples that day for our domestic purposes, and got some help from our new friends in the trees as they dropped some picked apples down to the ground. Upon departing the orchard after the German-American “hour” we waved goodbye to some interesting men. These men seemed very interested in us at the time. As I reflect upon this interesting episode in my life it is now apparent that these prisoners were no doubt lonely and homesick for their own kids and women.
After the war years and as the POW camp was turned into a series of enterprises such as a campground, a trailer park, a recreation area and home sites over the years, many of the war kids would reflect about the prisoners. There are records of some of the events and activities but the memories faded rather quickly. My Dad returned home after the war, and he and others like him did not talk too much about the experience. Fortunately my father served in Washington, D.C. for most of his time after finishing basic training at Sampson, New York. Sampson was one of the largest training facilities for the navy and was built for the huge need for sailors in the war. It was located only fifty miles away in Geneva, New York so we were able to see my father a couple of times during his training.
We had an interesting discussion one time around the kitchen table when my Dad finally explained some of his duties in the navy during the war. Among other things, the unit he was in helped predict weather patterns for the Atlantic Ocean and tested weather equipment to use on ships and at bases. It came to me during that discussion that the POWs in the orchard several years earlier (while my Dad was in Washington predicting weather and testing weather balloons) were often plucked from the Atlantic Ocean that my father’s unit was trying to make calculated decisions about for the safety of our own sailors. It seems ironic that the friendly and benign apple pickers were at odds with what my father and millions like him were trying to do on behalf of the USA!