ALGONA, Iowa – They came as enemies, starting 70 years ago this month.
After serving time at Camp Algona, one of two World War II prisoner-of-war camps in Iowa, many of the approximately 10,000 mostly German POWS left 18 months later as friends.
“They realized they had it pretty good. They remember it as a good, safe place to be. They had good food and a decent place to sleep. They appreciated their humane treatment in a camp operated in strict accordance with the Geneva Convention,” said Jerry Yocum, curator of the Camp Algona POW Museum.
Yocum, 75, a retired history teacher at both Algona High School and Iowa Lakes Community College, said the museum, at 114 S. Thorington St., was established in 2004 — 58 years after the last prisoners left and the camp itself disappeared from the face of the earth.
Despite the lengthy interval, the museum has assembled an impressive display of artifacts and conducted extensive research, which includes interviews with 60 POWs as well as 30 Americans who worked at the camp.
Algona received word in 1943 that a prison camp would be built there. The federal government bought 287 acres and, in three months, erected a complex of 178 wood frame buildings that began housing POWs in April 1944, Yocum said.
The prison stockade consisted of 60 barracks enclosed by a double-row, 10-foot-tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Guards in eight towers with search lights and machine guns overlooked the stockade.
After England reached its prisoner capacity, about 400,000 mostly German POWs were brought to 155 U.S. camps, which included Iowa prisons in Algona and Clarinda.
About 10,000 POWs passed through the Algona camp, with a peak population of 5,452 in September 1945.
“With 18 million Americans under arms, we needed their labor. That’s why we brought them here,” Yocum explained.
Most of the prisoners were moved from one branch camp to another where they worked on farms and in factories for 80 cents a day, paid in script negotiable at prison canteens.
In one impressive effort, 2,400 POWs working in southern Minnesota saved an estimated 65 percent of a record-breaking pea crop. Camp Commander Lt. Col. A.T. Lobdell credited them with saving 2.6 million cases of canned peas worth $9.8 million.
As a child in 1944, Yocum said he rode on a busload of POWs hauled by his father to clean up after a tornado in Pocahontas County.
“They picked up a toy and brought it back to me. I remember thinking, ‘These guys are OK,’” Yocum recalled.
“Dad was apparently not too worried about me being on the bus with them.”
Among the museum displays are cultural mementos including poems, paintings, letters and diaries left behind by the prisoners.
The prisoners’ best known and most appreciated legacy is the spectacular 20-by-40-foot nativity scene created by six prisoners in 1945.
About 2,500 people continue to visit the display each December at the Kossuth County Fairgrounds, according to Marv Chickering, a member of the First United Methodist Church in Algona, which owns and cares for the 65-piece work of art.
“The idea was born in 1944 when German POW Eduard Kaib, an architect in civilian life, built a 12-foot-wide nativity scene that was displayed in a mess hall during the 1944 Christmas season,” Chickering said.
Lobdell, the camp commander, was so impressed that he encouraged Kaib to build a larger display.
Kaib and five friends, with funding provided by fellow inmates, spent their free time in 1945 constructing more than 60 half-life-size pieces. They are built of concrete over wood and wire frames, many of them finished with hand-carved and painted plaster.
“The sheep weigh 40 pounds apiece, and the camels each weigh about 500 pounds,” Chickering said.
First displayed at the camp during the 1945 Christmas season, the scene so impressed local residents that they requested it remain in Algona, where it has since been displayed annually.
Kaib and his family visited in 1968, and Kaib, who died in 1988, later wrote to an Algona grade school class: “I never intended to create a piece of art. The only intention when making the nativity scene was to help bring the joy of Christmas to our camp.
“And you can imagine that I am very glad that the nativity scene still helps to heal the wounds of war.”
All 400,000 Germans imprisoned in the United States were sent home after the war, but 3,000 of them later returned to live, according to Yocum.
In an odd parallel, while thousands of German soldiers were imprisoned at Algona, about 2,600 Kossuth County residents were serving overseas in the U.S. military, many of them in hostilities with the Germans, and 24 Kossuth County residents were captured and imprisoned by the Germans, Yocum said.
In a painful irony, five Iowans who had been imprisoned in German stalags were, after their release, assigned to guard duty at Camp Algona.
After the last prisoners left in February 1946, the camp was dismantled in a matter of months and the land was ceded to the city of Algona.
The city airport and a National Guard Armory now occupy the site, which reveals no trace that it was ever a prisoner of war camp, Yocum said.