–submitted by Andrea Kaminski
One of the many benefits I appreciate about Rotary is the chance to learn new things about Wisconsin from our wonderful programs. Having moved here in 1977 – which made me a “newbie” at my table – I was unaware of the German prisoners of war who worked on our farms in World War II. Author Lucy Sanna filled us in on the history of German POWs in Wisconsin and read the opening of her newly released historical novel, The Cherry Harvest. Her presentation was enriched by historical photos of ships and trains that transported the POWs, camps where they lived and places where they worked.
Sanna acknowledged the aid of experts at the Door County Historical Society and public library, as well as the Wisconsin Historical Society, for her research. She and her daughter stayed with a farm family in the area, and she was put in touch with people who once worked with the POWs. She gained a lot of information from the staff at Fort McCoy.
In 1941 German POWs captured by the British were encamped in Europe. Because of a rumor that Hitler planned to drop bombs on the camps, the POWs were shipped to the United States on empty, returning Liberty Ships used to bring American troops to Europe. They traveled by train to military bases in many states, including Fort McCoy and other camps in Wisconsin. In 1945 there were some 425,000 German POWs in the U.S., according to Sanna.
At Fort McCoy, German and Japanese prisoners were retained in a separate camp within the Fort. The two groups were housed separately but used some shared facilities, leading to hostilities which needed to be managed by camp staff. The camp treated the prisoners well, offering such benefits as typing classes, a library with books in their own language and services provided by the YMCA. Yet officials publicly kept mum about the presence of the POWs in Wisconsin.
With the troops in Europe, Wisconsin residents who had once worked in orchards, canneries and dairies moved to more lucrative jobs in factories. This left farmers and food processing operators without the workforce they needed to make a living.
Sanna’s novel opens in 1944 with a moving scene about a Door County farm woman who is desperate to feed her family. She learns that there are German POWs who will pick cherries for 50 cents per hour (of which they keep 80 cents per day in the form of scrip which could be used in the camp commissary). The woman overcomes fear and conflict in her community to bring these workers to the peninsula for the harvest.