P.O.W.s in Jonesboro, Part 1 - KAIT Jonesboro, AR - Region 8 News, weather, sports

Jonesboro, AR - Diana Davis Reports

P.O.W.s in Jonesboro, Part 1

July 11, 2006 -- Posted at 8 p.m. CDT

   JONESBORO -- There are secrets, or perhaps little known facts, about Northeast Arkansas and Jonesboro that just might surprise you.  Why? Well, when we think of Region 8, we picture an area far removed from global conflict.  But there was a time when war brought enemy combatants to our back door.  In fact, Jonesboro was home to a camp for prisoners of war.

    A field, located near the intersection of Caraway and Matthews, would appear a quiet meadow, lush and green seemingly untouched by modern development.  But there was a time when this piece of land, once known as Billy Goat Hill was highly developed.

   Just beyond the manicured back nine of the Jonesboro Country Club lies history.  It's history in bits and pieces, pieces of footings and foundations from the German prisoner of war camp that once stood here some 62 years ago.  Very little remains of the camp... just a utility pole and a few concrete slabs where buildings once stood.   But there are memories of the time.

    It's a time when German soldiers walked these grounds everyday. The year was 1942. Hitler was ravaging Europe.  One of his chief command officers, Erwin Rommel, waged powerful attacks in the deserts of North Africa that earned him the title of "Desert Fox."  But in early November of '42, the tide was turning.  Allied forces brought about the defeat of Rommel and his famed Afrika corp made up of German and Italian forces.

   England was quickly running out of room for housing a growing prisoner of war population, so the country begged for help from the United States.  President Roosevelt relented and P.O.W.s were brought to American soil. 

   "It was an interesting time growing up in that period," said Frank Sloan, whose father used P.O.W.s as laborers.

    Frank Sloan was just a child, but he remembers German prisoners of war working on his father's farm in Fontaine.

    "Each day a truck would come in from the farm with high sideboards and ten prisoners and one guard would go back to the farm and do farm labor, said Frank.

     But, getting German prisoners of war to Northeast Arkansas was no small feat.  The first prisoners of war camps in the state were established at Camp Chaffee in western Arkansas, Camp Robinson near Little Rock and Camp Dermott in southern Arkansas.  Farmers all over the eastern half of the state were clamoring for laborers to work in the fields.

    A telegram to Congressman E.C., or "Took," Gathings in June of 1944 reveals the need for 5,000 cotton pickers.  Farm help at this time had left to fight in the war or abandoned this work for industries contributing to the war effort.  Farmers were desperate and so those notorious solders from Rommel's Afrika Corp were brought to Jonesboro.

   "I actually hated them because of the war," said Bob Ridge whose father also used P.O.W. laborers.  "I thought they've got no business bringing them out to Jonesboro. I had two or three older brothers and they said, I just can't believe Dad's going to bring those prisoners out here on this farm. Now that's the attitude most people had about them."

    Still farmers were struggling to get help in the fields.   So 30 prisoner of war branch camps were created.  Jonesboro's camp was among them.

   "The camp was located on Caraway," said Frank Sloan.  "About where the Army Reserve building is and the reason it was there is because during the 1930's during the Depression, an organization... The Civilian Conservation Corp established by the government gave young men jobs. They had a camp there and this is where the CCC boys stayed."

    The barracks was easily seen from what was then the dirt and gravel road that is now Caraway.

    "We would go through Trumann to see my relatives and we would go through Jonesboro--which there was only one way to go through there then," said Barbara Stevens, who remembers the German prisoner of war camp.  Barbara was nine-years-old at the time.  "I guess it stuck with me as a child because my uncle was a prisoner in Germany at the same time. I guess that is the reason that it made me think of it all these years."

    Billy Joe Emerson was also just a child then.  He remembers riding his bicycle with friends to the camp on weekends and watching the men play a sport he'd never seen before: soccer.

   "They'd kick the ball over the fence and we'd run and go get it and pitch it back," said Emerson.  "In their language, I'm sure they were saying thank you. We'd stay out there for an hour or two at a time."

    While Emerson stayed outside the camp security fence, others got the chance to go inside.    

    "They seemed to have enjoyed it because it was something for them," said Martha White.   Martha was one of five young local tap dancers who performed for the P.O.W.s one day at lunchtime.  "It didn't dawn on me that they were prisoners of war.  But, they were receptive and seemed to enjoy the whole thing. They just absolutely applauded and applauded. I thought they would never quit!"

    Arkansas State College, as it was known then, owned the land at the time it was used as a prisoner of war camp and many of the prisoners worked at the College.  They helped with road improvement projects, even did such things as mark out the football field and drove tractors for the physical plant.

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