July 12, 2006 -- Posted 4 p.m. CDT
JONESBORO -- You've heard about the hundreds of war prisoners from Afganistan and Iraq who are being held at the U.S. Naval Base in Guuantanamo Bay, Cuba. But, chances are... you may not know that prisoners from a different war were housed much closer to home.
Unusual as it might seem, Northeast Arkansas has seen its fair share of war prisoners. To explain, we have to go back to the year of 1943. The United States was at war. One of Hitler's most gifted generals, Erwin Rommel, met defeat at the hands of allies in North Africa.
Those men, known as the famed "Afrika Corp" would be brought to America as war prisoners. And just guess where they ended up...
"They were young men," said Herb Parker, who owns the land where the German prisoner of war camp once stood. "They were young men just like ours were over there. They were young men, they weren't villans."
There's only one known photograph of the German prisoners of war brought to Jonesboro during World War II. Other pictures exist of prisoners, but they were taken at any one of 30 P.O.W. camp sites set up throughout the state.
Hard times gripped Eastern Arkansas. Farm families were struggling to get crops harvested. That's because laborers had left to fight in the war, or to work war industries.
"They'd saw the trees down by hand and clear the land," said Frank Sloan. Sloan remembers German P.O.W.s working on his father's farm in Greene County. They came from this camp located in Jonesboro just off Caraway road. Nothing exists of the camp today, aside from a few concrete slabs that can be found not far from the campus of Arkansas State University.
"It sat facing Caraway road, maybe 100 - 200 yards up the hill towards the west," said Parker. "It was on the site of the farmer's CCC camp that had been there."
The camp began filling up with German soldiers at the request of local farmers. In July of 1944, the operator of Dean farms in Craighead County pleads with Congressman E.C., or "Took" Gathings to get the number of prisoners at the Jonesboro camp increased from 135 to a whopping 400. Another urgent telegram from blytheville asks that the number of prisoners at Luxora be brought to 250.
Farmers paid for the prisoner's work and the prisoners received compensation too.
"They got about 80 cents a day, " said Sloan. "I think they got paid according to their rank. The junior officers I think got $20 a month. This was not money they had but a credit to use to purchase things in a PX type place. At the end of the war, if they had any credits due, they got paid and could take that money home with them."
"I began to know them a little better being around them," said Bob Ridge, a Lake City farmer. "And you know, they're just like you and I. They're good people and I felt like I got thinking about it one day and I said they can't help... old Hitler's doing. That's why they're over here."
The German prisoners--for the most part--earned a reputation locally as being hard workers, reliable and contientious. Only a couple of prisoners strayed from their work detail one day in search of water.
May 7th, 1945. The end of the war. There was much celebrating.. But not for local farmers. They still had a crop to get out of the fields-- so when the war ended, prisoners were not immediately sent home. In fact, P.O.W.s at the Jonesboro camp did not leave until the spring of 1946.
"I remember after the war, a year or two, one of the prisoners that had a year or two, one of the prisoners that had worked on my dad's farm wrote him a letter asking if he could come back to America and work on our farm out in Greene County," said Sloan.
Sloan says his family never heart anything more from the soldier and doesn't know if he ever made it to the United States.
"This utility pole, as far as I know, is the last visible remnant of this area as the CCC camp and as the prisoner of war camp," said Parker. "Everything else is either gone and plowed under or something."
Parker bought the land in the 1950's. All structures from the camp were leveled before that time. But, his children have found a few artifacts presumably belonging to the prisoners of war.
"They left this behind (gesturing towards a wooden cane) and either it's been broken off or there was a very short German soldier there," laughs Parker. "It's not very long."
While they were once considered the enemy, these German soldiers came to the aide of Arkansas' agricultural community at a key time. Without them, many farms would have been lost.
For that, it's important we preserve this bit of history in Region 8.
"It might be a good idea to let some of the younger generation know that the war was this close to home, said Barbara Stevens of Paragould. "That's getting close to home when you've got your prisoners here."
Many the P.O.W.s actually refused to eat in the days before their being sent home to Germany. That's because they feared looking too well fed as they returned to family and friends. Food was in very short supply in germany at the time, and many people there were frail and not in very good health.