Lawrence was site of POW camp
In the spring of 1945, some newcomers to Lawrence caused a great deal of excitement.
On April 30, more than 100 German prisoners of war were trucked in from Fort Riley to a recently built prison camp on the northeast corner of 11th Street and Haskell Avenue.
Erminia Gauna, who was in grade school at the time, lived with her family only a short distance away. They saw the trucks bring the prisoners to the camp and later often saw the POWs being taken by truck to various job sites in the area.
“At first my parents were concerned about the camp being so close,” Gauna said. “But they seemed friendly. They would just go by and wave at you. Sometimes mom would say, ‘Get away from the windows,’ but we always liked to watch them go by.”
Construction on the Lawrence camp began in February 1945, when the area was facing a labor shortage because of the war. Four area businesses – the W.J. Small Co. Inc. of Neodesha, Cerophy Laboratories Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., Kaw Valley Potato Growers of Lawrence and Columbus Foods Corp. of Lawrence – teamed to bring in extra help.
The Small Co. entered an agreement with the U.S. Army to establish a POW camp in Lawrence. The prisoners would be used to help the Potato Growers and Columbus Foods. On March 30, 1945, about a dozen POWs arrived to help build the camp.
The camp consisted of three buildings used for a mess hall, toilets and laundry, and guard quarters. The prisoners were housed in six tents with wooden floorboards. The camp was surrounded by barbed-wire fences.
Employers were responsible for transporting the prisoners to and from work. According to letters on file at Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass., the prisoners often were commended for their hard work.
In addition to helping several area farmers, they helped build Danforth Chapel and part of the power plant on the Kansas University campus.
There were about 371,000 German POWs held in more than 500 camps in the U.S., including 15 in Kansas, which was sometimes referred to as “Stalag Sunflower.” The Lawrence camp closed in November 1945.
“They were there so long, we forgot they were there most of the time,” Gauna said.
Watkins also has a letter from a former POW who later wrote from Germany when he heard about a special exhibit the museum had in 1995. He commended the local community for being good to him and his fellow POWs.
“With this letter I want to express my thanks to all the Americans who were kind to us, who didn’t treat us as enemies or Nazi criminals but as human beings,” wrote Willi O. Jager.