By nearly all accounts, they were pretty fair pea pickers.
Heck, in 1945, we may not have gotten a pea crop in the bins here in Douglas County without those boys. What's that, you didn't know we grew peas? In 1945, there was a canning company in Lawrence that shipped 45,000 military rations of peas per day, according to some reports. There were potatoes and beets growing from the bottomland in those days, too.
It is amazing what can be grown in our fertile fields.
But in 1945, there was a question of whether the pea crop would get picked. Then along came a "fine looking bunch of blond, young men."
"If it had not been for the 100 men that helped our growers, the cannery would not have been in operation this season owing to the fact that the farmers raising peas did not have sufficient help to handle a pea crop," W.H Pendleton, an executive with the Lawrence cannery of Columbus Foods wrote in a 1945 letter.
So, yes, they could pick peas. In fact, we could go so far as to say they were good pea pickers.
They also were damn Germans.
In 1945, it was easy to damn a German. Just one year earlier — 70 years ago — our American "boys" were storming the beaches of Normandy, and sacrificing all to defeat the German army and ensure freedom.
Now, one year after that bloodiest of battles, a group of Germans numbering a few hundred were in our community. It was not without some delight to note that they had gone from Panzers to peas. They were German prisoners of war, and you might be surprised to learn how many of them ended up in Kansas.
According to newspaper reports from the day, there were at least 13 German prisoner of war camps in the state. They were in places such as Fort Riley but also just outside small towns such as Cawker City, Eskridge, Council Grove, El Dorado and Ottawa. Concordia had one that numbered 5,000 prisoners, making it about as large as the town itself.
In Lawrence, 112 prisoners were delivered on a late April day in 1945. They came via an armed convoy that traveled right down Massachusetts Street. And the arrival was not without incident. No, Fritz wasn't on the loose. Instead, one of the trucks in the convoy stopped suddenly and another rear-ended it. The newspaper reports a military tow truck arrived on the scene to tow that truck's prisoners to their new home.
That home was just north and east of 11th and Haskell. That's the general area where the food bank Just Food is located today. A flat area right along the railroad line housed a hastily built mess hall, guards quarters, toilet/laundry building and an area for dozens of tents where the prisoners would sleep. Some of you may remember seeing the site long after it closed. One of the buildings remained on the property until a fire in 1987 destroyed it.
A Journal-World reporter in the mid-1980s noted in an article that the building looked a lot like many other dilapidated buildings around the countryside, except for one difference: the rusty bars on the window.
You need barred windows for damn Germans.
Camp Lawrence, as it was sometimes called, was built to house 300 prisoners. There are conflicting reports of whether that many ever arrived. What is known is that the camp closed in late November of 1945.
It was open basically for one growing season. It may have been one of the more unusual seasons in Lawrence's history.
The young ladies of Lawrence perhaps signaled the first signs of change. The land the camp was housed on was owned by Park Hetzel. The longtime Lawrence resident, who has since died, told a local reporter in the 1980s that the camp had four guard stations — one for each corner of the property. Guarding against escape, though, wasn't particularly the highest order of the day.
"What they were worried about was to keep those girls away from them," Hetzel said. "They would walk up and down the railroad tracks looking at the boys. At that time, there weren't many young men around."
There were rules crafted by the Army to prohibit such behavior. The community was made aware that fraternizing with "enemy nationals" was "improper, objectionable and will not be tolerated." But those who remained in Lawrence in 1945 weren't great at rules, apparently. There was one rule specifically banning people from trading cigarettes with prisoners for items of interest. Yet, for decades after the camp's closure, there were people in this town who had beautifully carved wooden Indian heads. The POWs would carve them in their down time at the camp, and deals soon were struck where a packet of Prince Albert tobacco would get a fellow an Indian head.
A certain thought even started to make its way across the community, as farmers and others saw these POWs toiling in the pea fields, working in the cannery or constructing buildings at Kansas University. (It has been documented that German POWs helped construct Danforth Chapel on campus.) The thought was one that surely could not have survived the light of day just a year earlier: Maybe not all Germans are damned.
At least one Lawrence teenager began to have that thought. Fred Six was the son of Deal Six, the county's longtime extension agent. Deal, along with the chamber of commerce and several businesses, was instrumental in bringing the POW camp and the much needed labor to the community. Fred often would travel with his father to the fields. He remembers one day when his father, concerned the POWs were lacking nourishment, brought a large number of pies, and placed them in front of the Germans in a small field-side shack.
Deal and Fred left to take care of other matters, and then returned to pick up the plates. But "not a morsel had been touched," Fred recalls. The Germans were not sure the pies were for them. When they finally got the message to eat, they insisted that Fred and Deal join them.
Fred said another way of looking at the Germans emerged.
"They didn't choose to be in Germany," Six said. "What are you going to do when Hitler is rolling along and knocks on your door? Your option probably was to go, or be shot."
Fred Six, who went on to become one of Lawrence's more distinguished citizens and is now a retired Kansas Supreme Court justice, believes the POW camp did give Lawrence residents a different view of the war than many other communities had. Perhaps it is one that more should have had.
"Here were these Germans that were so opposite of what the posters proclaimed," Six said. "There is no substitute for personal face-to-face association to form an opinion . . .You see someone and see them smile and see their kindness and their effort."
C.O. Nauman, a Lawrence resident who worked with the POWs in the Ottawa camp, had a slightly different way of saying it in a 1972 letter to the editor.
"It would have been easier to dislike them, if I hadn't known them."
Come to find out, that was a thought that went both ways. And one that endured.
In 1991, Willie Jaeger wrote a letter to Lawrence City Hall about his experiences as a POW in Camp Lawrence. He wanted to learn more about the city that he recalled fondly. The city sent him a visitors guide and a letter that said we were glad he recalls Lawrence's friendliness even during a "time of world-wide turbulence and strife." (That is World War II in City Hall memo language, in case you were wondering.)
But Jaeger had more on his mind than getting a visitors guide. He felt there also was something he should say.
"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 humans. In the long run, this was a much better way to make us friends of the American."
It really was quite a season in Lawrence in 1945: from damn Germans to fair pea pickers to fellow humans.
It is amazing what can grow in our fertile fields.