Last week the book club I belong to was discussing a book involving family responsibilities. One member, Catherine, suddenly interjected —
“When I was 16 I was supervising 15 German POW’s on our farm.”
Her statement commanded everyone’s attention. What did you say?
“It started in ’41. Dad got these workers from a POW camp in Ovid. He picked them up and then drove them back at the end of every day.”
A Little Background
The POW camp in Ovid and its prisoners/farm laborers were part of the United States Emergency Farm Labor Program. Between 1943 and 1946 there were 45 agricultural-related camps in Colorado. They were in areas where the ordinary source of workers was greatly reduced because of the Armed Forces need for American men. Between May and October, 1943, approximately 20,000 POWs arrived monthly. By the end of 1945, the number of POWs totaled more than 340,000.*
Catherine’s family farmed 360 acres in Northern Colorado, where they grew sugar beets, “acres and acres of potatoes” and corn. The oldest of six children, Catherine had convinced her father when she was only nine years old to teach her to drive a truck “real slow” so she could help out in the fields. By 1943, the 16 year old was such a skilled driver (farmers used to come and watch this oldest daughter who could turn the tractor on a dime) that her dad entrusted her with managing 15 German POWs.
Catherine’s WWII story
“I was boss of the potato group. Some of them spoke English, badly, but they spoke it. I didn’t have sense enough to be afraid. I never worried at all working with them. They were just a bunch of men to me. They were really very nice. They didn’t ever try to hurt me. Sometimes one of them, Hans, would jump on the tractor and ride along next to me. I have no idea why. I didn’t ask any of them anything.”
Catherine remembers them looking young, maybe in their 20’s, and that all were muscular. They wore POW uniforms. She wore overalls or jeans and a shirt.
“Years before, both my parents had been immigrants from Germany. My father could speak German and treated the POWs nicely, so they worked hard for him. Nobody caused any problems.
“Mother would sometimes bake a birthday cake for them even when she shouldn’t have. My parents treated the POWs like human beings.”
After the war ended, the POWs were returned to Germany. It was not the end of the story.
“One day Daddy got a letter. It was from Hans who asked my dad if he could marry me. Daddy read the letter and he just smiled. ‘Well, mom, looks like we’re going to lose our oldest daughter…’ I said, “Oh no, Dad!”
Whether Hans letter was motivated from a crush that grew in the midst of a Colorado potato field, or whether Hans simply wanted to come back to America — Catherine doesn’t know.
What she does know is the long-lasting impact those experiences more than a half-century ago have had on her, even today.
“Those experiences made a hard worker out of me, gave me a work ethic. Even today I can’t stop working without thinking I am wasting my time. As for the POWs, I think about them from time to time.
I wonder what they are doing in life. I saw how my mother and father treated them, like they were human beings, too. They way my parents acted affected how I see things.
Catherine went on to marry, have children, and become a school teacher. In 1975 she was honored by the State Department of Colorado as one of the top three teachers of the year.
Asked if she would be afraid today of immigrants or refugees coming to the U.S. from countries some people consider hostile, Catherine responded: “No, I think they are human beings, like the rest of us.”
*“The Enemy in Colorado: German Prisoners of War 1943-1946,” Allen Paschal, The Colorado Magazine, 1979.