OLIVIA (AP) -- They worked side by side with their Minnesota neighbors, harvesting crops, canning vegetables, logging pulpwood, and making bricks and other products.
At day's end, the locals returned to their homes while the Italian, and later German, prisoners of war marched back to barbed wire-enclosed camps.
Minnesota was host to 21 different prisoner of war camps during World War II. An estimated 3,500 to 4,500 captured soldiers, most of them German, passed through the camps during the three years they were in operation.
It's a largely forgotten part of our history -- the buildings from only one of these camps still survive -- but that shouldn't diminish the importance of the legacy they represent, said Olivia native Dean Simmons.
At a time when the world was being torn apart, ''we maintained our integrity,'' said Simmons, now a resident of St. Paul. The U.S. military treated its prisoners according to the standards of the Geneva Convention. The local population displayed little animosity toward the men, who only a few months earlier were aiming their guns at their sons fighting the war.
''My hat's off to the people who were living here at the time,'' said Simmons, who spoke recently to an Olivia audience about this unusual part of history.
Simmons recently wrote a 234-page book on Minnesota's World War II prison camps, ''Swords into Plowshares.'' It provides an overview of Minnesota's POW camp history, brief histories of each camp, and interviews with former prisoners and Americans who knew the camps.
Olivia proved to be the stopping point for the first prisoners to reach Minnesota. The 100 Italian POWs arrived on Sept. 5, 1943 -- within a week of Italy's surrender -- and immediately went to work picking 1,500 acres of corn by hand. They were housed in tents in a barbed wire-enclosed compound near a defunct tile factory.
The Italians were followed in 1944 by German POWs. The German POWs were housed at the Renville County fairgrounds in Bird Island but worked for the Olivia Canning Company and Rogers Brothers Seed Company of Olivia.
Olivia upgraded the old tile factory building to accommodate the prisoners the next year, and became host again to German POWs. The joint Olivia and Bird Island operation represented the only place in Minnesota to hold POWs for three successive years, Simmons said.
All the Minnesota camps were designed to meet local labor needs that developed during the war. Employers paid the local wage rate, but the prisoners received only about 10 cents an hour in camp credits after the government claimed its share.
Most camps were seasonal, like those in Olivia and Bird Island. They were designed to meet the needs of local canning and farming operations.
The camp in Ortonville, for example, sent its prisoners out to help 861 farmers in seven counties.
Some camps were very short-lived, such as the one in Ada. It lasted only a month, serving only to meet a one-time, emergency harvest need in the Red River Valley.
Other camps served a multitude of labor needs and operated year-round. Prisoners from the New Ulm camp toiled at the Sleepy Eye cannery and worked alongside union workers year-round at the Ochs Brick and Tile Company in Springfield.
There were also logging camps in northern Minnesota. The only strong, vocal opposition to using prison labor surfaced over these camps, said Simmons. Union lumberjacks objected to the plans to use prison laborers, but the military set up the camps anyway.
All of the Minnesota camps were operated as branch camps of the Algona, Iowa, camp.
Willmar native Howard Hong found the newly built Algona camp to be a mess of trampled ''Iowa gumbo'' when he first set foot there. Hong, described by Simmons as the ''true hero of my book,'' did much to make life better for POWs in camps throughout much of the United States.
Hong represented the War Prisoners Aid, sponsored by the Young Men's Christian Alliance. He spent long hours traveling, meeting prisoners and delivering donated books, musical instruments, soccer balls and other items to make life better for the captives.
''A little in a situation where there is nothing becomes very much,'' said Hong from his home in Northfield, where he is a retired St. Olaf professor. While prisoners were fed and sheltered well enough, their life could be dismal. ''Camp life means stopping the clock,'' Hong said.
The prisoners were cut off from their families and home, and many of the activities we otherwise take for granted.
''The real issue was how to keep from, in a sense, dying inside,'' Hong said.
Local people also offered gifts of their own, which did much for the prisoners' spirits, said Simmons. He found it was not unusual for workers to share small treats with their prison co-workers, or for farmers to invite their prison laborers to their tables for meals.
There were also reports of interesting escapades. Members of one New Ulm family were fined after they were caught bringing German prisoners to their home for the night. Three prisoners at the Owatonna camp slipped under the barbed-wire fence one night and joined the fun at the county fair, where they enjoyed a ride on the Ferris wheel.
In Olivia, Italian prisoners worshiped at the local Catholic church. The local priest, the Rev. Henry Pomije, said Mass in Italian for them.
Security was never much of an issue, Simmons said. ''The prisoners had no place to go.'' Typically, armed guards would watch over their prisoners on the first day of work. After that, the guards would only escort the prisoners to and from the camp.
Of course, the time came when the camps were closed and the prisoners returned to Europe. Most of the prisoners were delivered at the war's end to Britain and France, where they were forced into service to rebuild the war-torn countries.
Simmons said the prisoners generally spoke well of their treatment in the United States, but complained bitterly of their time as forced laborers in Britain and France.
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