Bringing home the enemy
Set during World War II, 'My Christmas Soldier' reveals common ground in Georgia
BY MAURIEL JOSLYN
These trucks would come into town, with all these good-looking young men in the back," says Eunice Mixon, who becomes animated when recalling memories of growing up in Tifton in the 1940s. "We girls were walking down the street, and they would wolf-whistle us!" Eunice might be talking about American soldiers in any Georgia town during World War II, but she's describing German soldiers -- prisoners of war brought to the American South in 1943.
Eunice's story mirrors many accounts I discovered while researching information for a screenplay I was writing -- stories that vividly exist in the collective memory of Georgians who lived when war tore through Europe and Asia. For Americans at home, it was a time of pulling together with strapped resources, of Victory Gardens and scrap drives, supporting our armed forces abroad.
My fascination with German prisoners in Georgia began in high school when I saw the film "Summer of My German Soldier." The fictionalized story revolves around a young German who escaped from a Georgia POW (prisoner of war) camp and met a teenage Jewish girl. The two became friends until tragedy separated them forever.
How did Germans become prisoners within our borders? In North Africa, in 1942, more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers under command of Gens. Omar Bradley and George Patton invaded Libya from the west, while British forces under Gen. Bernard Montgomery put the squeeze on German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's elite Deutsches Afrika Korps from the east. The result was the surrender of the German army in North Africa, and the dumping of more than 100,000 prisoners into Allied hands.
Originally confined in makeshift barbwire pens surrounded by desert sand, something had to be done with the men by early 1943. Under pressure from Britain, the U.S. government agreed to ship German and Italian prisoners to the States. Since the Geneva Convention stated that enemy prisoners be confined in a climate similar to the one in which they were captured, the warm and sunny South became a major geographical section for POW camps. German soldiers were processed in North Africa and put on ships to cross the Atlantic to land at New York and Norfolk. From there, by train, they were dispersed around the South, Midwest and Southwest to become part of the population of many small towns. In fact, in most places, the Germans outnumbered their American captor citizens by the thousands.
Most camps were located at already-established army posts and training bases, where security and facilities could easily be expanded. In Georgia, these were Camp Stewart in Savannah, Camp Wheeler in Macon, Fort Benning in Columbus, Fort Gordon in Augusta and Fort Oglethorpe near Chickamauga.
So how were these enemy soldiers received by local Georgians, most of whom had never even seen a German? Early concern about escapes vanished when local army bases, expanded by POW camps, boosted the economy with civilian employment. Then the U.S. government hit on an idea that brought citizens and prisoners into direct contact and spawned an unexpected cultural exchange remembered by many: The POW Labor Program of 1943. Under this program, German soldiers under the rank of sergeant, were required to fill the dire domestic labor shortage caused by the lack of able-bodied men in America. Higher noncommissioned and commissioned officers were given the choice to work for 80 cents a day.
The biggest impact was on agriculture. Georgia farmers hired hundreds of men to pick cotton, harvest peanuts or pack peaches. Macon businessman and contractor Walter Watson remembers the 25 German soldiers his father hired for two summers. Guards initially accompanied prisoners. "I was about 16, 17 -- along in there. I worked with my uncle at the peach-packing shed, my father ran it. The first time I went out there to work one summer, I caught the bus from Warner Robins. And an MP there pulls his M1 down off his shoulder and wanted to know what in the world I was doing there! The guards were a little skittish early on because [having the German soldiers around] was new to them, just as it was to everybody else," he says.
Soon a trust developed. Guards were dismissed and many farmers became close to their German charges. "Every now and then my uncle needed something done at his house. He would feed [German soldiers] Oskar and Henry an extra meal over there that they weren't supposed to get, but things like that happened," he smiles. At Christmas, the uncle sent a catered dinner to these prisoners at Camp Wheeler.
When asked about communicating, I got a surprising answer: "[Soldiers] Werner and Hans spoke English very well. One of them had lived in Hollywood and he could speak English as well or better than I did," Watson says.
Contrary to popular thought, the average German soldier was not a Nazi. "Most were draftees. There was only one Nazi in the whole crowd of our 25. He was about 19 or 20. Most of them were between 20 and 40 years old. They were victims pretty much like our troops over there were," Watson recalls.
The attitude of Watson's family is typical. Milledgeville resident Betty Snyder and her parents lived near Swainsboro during the war. "My father leased his property to the government for a POW camp," she recalls. Swainsboro hosted one of many unnamed and now-vanished satellite camps to utilize POW labor around the state. The height of the POW population reached 11,800 in 40 camps. "He was a very tolerant person. He never had hard words for the Germans. He used to talk about the German soldiers. He would buy them Coca-Cola and showed them how to drink it with peanuts in it like he liked. I still have some German money they gave him for souvenirs."
Even after the war, the German soldiers remained prisoners. The Allied governments were reluctant to send them back to Germany with its wrecked economy and devastated cities, some of which were in Russian control. Many remained under the labor contract program until they were repatriated in 1947 and 1948.
Once they saw their homeland and the conditions, some chose to become American citizens and returned as free men. Others remained in Germany to rebuild their lives, but never forgot their experience as POWs in Georgia, and the friendships they had made with farmers. Disappointments and gratitude are expressed in letters back to the Watson family, some written in broken English, some in German. "My wife and child are alive, but they have a very hard life," wrote Oskar Hintz. A letter from Henry Dassler echoed the sentiments of many others. "I want to thank you with my full heart for all the kindness and what you have done for me. I thank you also for your good treatment. I know that I remember the whole time of my life your kindness."
One prisoner made a beautiful wooden box for Watson's father, inlaid with wood he had carved with a pocket knife. It is the souvenir of a fascinating relationship that proves the human heart is the same the world over, in war or in peace.
Mauriel Joslyn is a screenwriter from Sparta (also see sidebar - "Driven to tell the tale").
Where to see it:
- "My Christmas Soldier" will be screened at multiple viewing times on Dec. 7 -- Pearl Harbor Day -- and on Dec. 12 and 19 during the "Candlelight Nights" at the Atlanta History Center, 130 West Paces Ferry Rd. N.W.; (404) 814-4000; www.atlhist.org.
- The DVD of "My Christmas Soldier," which also contains an hour-long conversation with a former German POW, is available for sale in LifeWay Christian and Family Christian stores. It can also be purchased for $14.99 online at www.mychristmassoldier.com.