‘BUS-eum’ drives home WWII experience

Traveling POW exhibit stops in Lawrence

During World War II, tens of thousands of American soldiers fighting in Europe were taken prisoner by the Germans. Their planes were shot down, their convoys surrounded; they were forced to live in Spartan conditions, eating meals of sawdust to stay alive. They yearned for home. Some never made it back.

On Sunday, a traveling museum, housed in a converted school bus, arrived in Lawrence to raise awareness of their experiences. It focused especially on those of the more than 50,000 POWs from Midwestern states, which accounted for more than half of the estimated 90,000 POWS in Germany.

The exhibit, called “Behind Barbed Wire: Midwest POWs in Nazi Germany,” is part of the TRACES Museum, based in St. Paul, Minn. It is dedicated to sharing the stories of Midwestern soldiers and civilians. The Watkins Community Museum of History invited the so-called “BUS-eum” to Lawrence, where it parked in front of the museum at 1047 Mass.

“By happenstance and bad luck, the majority of prisoners of war were from Midwestern states,” including Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and North and South Dakota, said Irving Kellman, who serves as bus driver and exhibit docent for the project.

“The heartland just emptied of 18-25 year olds,” Kellman said. “We used German POW labor to save the crops of 1944 and 1945 because we had no one” to harvest the crops.

Kellman said the exhibit has visited more than 800 Midwestern towns in 12 states in the past three years. More than 80,000 people have stepped inside the converted school bus to view artifacts, newspaper articles and videos, learning about the horrific experiences of American POWs.

Kellman said he hoped young people would walk away with an appreciation for the sacrifices made by that generation.

“The freedom they have is because of what these men sacrificed and what their grandparents sacrificed,” he said.

“World War II was the last war this country fought as a unified effort,” Kellman said, describing the sacrifices many Americans made by creating victory gardens, collecting scrap metal and living on rations. “Every war since then the country’s been divided about whether we should be fighting.”

Lawrence resident Kevin Boatright was taking photographs inside the bus. His father, James, an Air Corps tail gunner, was shot down in the summer of 1944 over the Ruhr region of Germany. He was taken prisoner and made to march in freezing temperatures to Stalag Luft IV, a prisoner camp in what is now Poland.

Boatright’s father died of polio before he was born and he said the exhibit was a chance to connect with the man he never knew.

“This is a contact I have with my father because I never met him,” Boatright said. “It’s information I’ve been reading about in books.”

Seeing the letters, mementos and other artifacts from American soldiers who lived in the same conditions as his father made it a very emotional experience, he said.

The museum, which featured a video about German POWs in the United States, also highlighted a piece of local history, said Helen Krische, archivist for the Watkins Museum.

“It plays into the history of Lawrence, in that towards the end of the war, we actually had a community of prisoners of war live here,” she said. She said that a German POW camp was erected near 11th Street and Haskell Avenue; the captured Germans were put to work by local potato farmers to harvest their crops.

The interior of the bus included an authentic uniform worn by a U.S. soldier, belt buckles from Nazi and American soldiers, letters from POWs to their loved ones, newspaper clippings and even wooden clogs – favored by German civilians and given to captured Americans to replace worn boots. Kellman said the loud clogs acted as a deterrent for those planning an escape.

Seeing pieces of history left Lawrence’s Jamal McClinton, 20, contemplative.

“Whenever somebody talks about the war, they talk about the war, not the people,” McClinton said. The museum gave him a chance to see history up close.

World War II seems to enjoy a resurgence in interest every few years, from the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004 to the recent Ken Burns documentary, “The War.” Exhibits like this, Kellman said, are able to keep history and the sacrifices of Americans in the public eye.

Jennifer Dropkin, of Lawrence, said she decided to visit the exhibit to remind her of history’s toll.

“It’s a story that needs to be told. People don’t usually think about it,” she said. “It’s important to me to not forget history.”