On the Road: POWs in the Midwest—A Road Trip to Algona, Iowa
How do you store 425,000 prisoners of war? What sounds like the setup for a tasteless joke was an actual concern for the US in World War II. England ran out of places to hold captured German and Italian soldiers, and America was asked to step up and find space to house, feed, and keep all those captured enemy combatants busy. Consequently, the US established multiple camps and facilities across the country. Algona, Iowa, hosted one of them from April 1944 to February 1946. All that remains of the camp today is on display at the Camp Algona PoW Museum (114 S. Thorington St., Algona, Iowa), a block south of the city’s main drag. But what’s there is a astonishingly thorough record of the only time the Vaterland occupied the Heartland.
The museum wasn’t my original choice of destination in Algona. The city is mostly known for—by architecture buffs at least—the Henry Adams Building (123 E. State St.), one of the eight banks/buildings designed by Louis Sullivan in his twilight years. Seeing the building was the culmination of a decade or so of road trips, having already visited Sullivan’s other "jewel boxes" in Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, Indiana, and two other Iowan structures in Grinnell and Cedar Rapids. Seeing my final Sullivan would have made the very, very, very long drive through the pretty green blankness of Iowa worth it, but research revealed the Algona area offered more than soybeans, corn, and economy-goosing wineries, breweries, and coffee houses. The Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption in nearby West Bend, for instance, is an impressively large and walkable conglomeration of rocks, fossils, and petrified wood, built for the Blessed Virgin Mary by a grateful priest. Down the road a piece is Britt, Iowa, home of the Hobo Museum and the annual Hobo Convention. Further still, Clear Lake, where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper played their last gig at the Surf Ballroom before crashing in a corn field six miles north later that evening.
The Camp Algona PoW museum is a different kind of roadside attraction. Every town has a local history museum, or at least a room at the library or city hall. Most are a mishmash of found historical objects donated by the natives. Black and white photos of glowering 19th century businessmen; great great great granddaddy’s cavalry saber from the Civil War (more likely a repro from 1976); rusted farm tools; obsolete kitchen implements; disturbing mannequins in tatty clothes; and a plenitude of quilts (you might encounter something startling, like an iron lung or preserved two-headed calf, but don’t get your hopes up). Sincerity and kitsch appeal aside, most local museums are strictly amateur hour, worth a dollar in the donation jar out front at best.
Not so the Camp Algona PoW Museum. Once, a furniture store occupied the place, offering 14,000 square feet of space now chock-filled with well-curated prison camp memorabilia, equipment, signage, reminiscences by those on either side of the bars, and a surprising amount of original artwork.
Algona, Iowa, was one of 700 US communities picked by the government to incarcerate and employ German, Italian, and Japanese PoWs. Up in Lake County, Illinois, 1,300 prisoners called Fort Sheridan home—occupying barracks left emptied of American soldiers serving overseas. Elsewhere, a handful of Chicago suburbs—Glenview, Arlington Heights, Des Plaines, and Thornton—were sites for smaller camps of 200 or so men. Camps were mostly located in rural areas, with PoWs enlisted to perform farming, food production, building, lumber, and factory jobs—so long as the work had no direct connection to the war effort—earning 80 cents a day over a 40-hour week.
The rolling Grant Woodian fields of Iowa met the requirements. As one of two main camps in Iowa (the other was in Clarinda, which housed Japanese PoWs), Algona was connected to multiple branch camps across the state. Over three years, 10,000 PoWs passed through its gates, with 2,500 occupying the camp at any time. No one knows why Algona got the nod over other Iowa towns. Retired teacher, Iowa historian, and museum president Jerry Yocum, among others, has looked into it, but no definite answer has emerged.
“Some say because of the size of our community (writer’s note: 4,954 people, per the 1940 census). Some say because of railroads and federal highways running each direction to and from Algona. Some say because of political connections,” Yocum said by email. “The answer finally is…we don’t know, and may never know.”
The museum was first conceived in 2001. Many Algonans were unaware of their town’s history as a PoW camp site. Yocum and others formed a committee to remedy that, by turning up as much information about the camp as possible. The museum itself opened in 2004, and sees about 2,500 visitors a year.
As for the camp, the museum’s exhibits describe a secure and intimidating place. Originally located three miles west of town—Algona Municipal Airport sits there today—the camp covered 287 acres, encircled by chain-link fences and barbed wire, and overseen by eight guard towers. Within this enclosure were 60 barracks, three mess halls, showers, latrines, and a hospital. Fences, barbed wire, and armed guards notwithstanding, the camp had its pleasanter aspects with a recreation hall; arts, crafts, and education spaces; and a canteen where prisoners could purchase snacks and other comforts with the money they earned. American camp personnel—officers, military police, and about 70 civilian workers, mostly female Civil Service employees—lived and worked in a garrison outside the fence. Per Yocum, Algona citizens knew about the camp, but weren’t allowed to interact with PoWs or enter without permission. As to the farms and factories where the internees worked, contact was less regimented, and interviewees on both sides recall a more casual relationship while the war raged on half a world away.
When the PoWs finished work they slept, ate, and passed the time in different ways. Familial contact and female companionship weren’t permitted, so the men’s energies were redirected into sports, education, music (there was a 15-piece orchestra), theater, films, and art. The museum displays myriad paintings, sketches, and doodles—mostly pastoral scenes and portraits of people—chaplains and farmers and their families—PoWs came to know through work duty.
“Materials for their art could be purchased at the PX with money they earned working,” Yocum explains. “The reason we have quite a large collection of pieces is that they were given to people they worked for on farms as appreciation for fair treatment.”
Algona’s PoW masterpiece is the crèche, or nativity scene, created by artist, architect, and German PoW Eduard Kaib and five other prisoners in 1945. Constructed from wire, wood, cement, plaster, and paint, the tableau features 65 half-sized figures: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, three Wise Men, shepherds, and sundry farm critters, including 30 sheep. The crèche is not on view at the museum. Currently looked after by the First United Methodist Church of Algona down the road, it’s displayed at the Kossuth County Fairgrounds every December.
As swell a bunch of fellas as the PoWs seemed, one cannot overlook the occasional swastika that pops up in the museum’s displays. Camp Algona PoWs were a mixed bunch. Some were career soldiers and draftees serving in different branches of the Wehrmacht, more interested in duty than National Socialist ideology—by their accounts. But there were true believers too. Other camps saw harassment and even executions of PoWs viewed as disloyal or too friendly toward the Americans. PoW Kurt Schilowsky, who later became a priest, recalled being approached and presented with Nazi literature by former SS men on arrival. He avoided them. Conversely, Schilowsky remembered several soldiers who sliced away the SS blood group tattoos under their left arms to avoid detection. Those living former PoWs who chose to speak with the museum folks, however, mostly reported satisfaction with camp conditions. Likely they also preferred painting and canning peas to being shot at.
Article 118 of the Geneva Conventions states “Prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities.” World War II officially ended with the surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945, but Camp Algona topped out at 5,452 PoWs on September 15. Returning prisoners to Europe took slightly longer, but the last were sent home the following year in February. Once they were gone, Camp Algona was swiftly disassembled. The lumber was sold, miscellaneous fixtures auctioned off, and the area cleared of any trace. Memories of the place faded as well, until the organization of the Camp Algona PoW Museum Project Committee. Both the museum and the project carry on.
“Our purpose was to build a museum that would tell the story of the development and operation of Camp Algona,” Jerry Yocum states. “We are still collecting and telling the story of the Camp to the public.
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