Sunday, December 30, 2007

Camp Guard's Daughter Offers Book Review

I am pleased to post below a review of Guests Behind the Barbed Wire that appeared this morning on It is written by the daughter of Jack Sisty, one of several guards at Camp Aliceville who fell in love with and married young women in the Pickens County area and later returned to Aliceville to make their home:

A Daughter of the Camp, December 30, 2007 I grew up in Aliceville, Alabama, and enjoyed almost idyllic childhood and teenage years there. I am a product of Camp Aliceville. My father was a native of Long Island, New York. He tried many times to enlist in the Army at the beginning of the war, but was turned down because he had a permanent limp from polio as an infant and a ruptured eardrum. Finally, he was allowed to enlist and was sent directly to Aliceville, Alabama, a GI at the prisoner of war camp. There he met my mother, a member of an old family in the area, who was one of the many young women who left their jobs to work at the camp; it was an exciting time for them, a chance to do something completely unexpected, and a chance to serve their country. My Mom and Dad met, courted, and married on one of my Dad's three-day passes. They lived briefly in New York, where my brother and I were born, then moved back to Alabama, to stay. I grew up listening to stories about the camp. Until recently, the history of Camp Aliceville has been largely unknown to the rest of the country. It is wonderful that more people will be made aware of the happenings there, thanks to Ms. Cook and her excellently researched and well-written book. Aliceville became richer because of the influx of GI's from all over the country, many who remained in Aliceville after the war. Aliceville became rich in culture and history, and its citizens developed a great appreciation for the arts and literature. Above all, Aliceville did exhibit a great example of the Golden Rule. It is to our credit that POW's were treated humanely and with respect - things that did not always happen in countries where our veterans were held as prisoners.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Serendipity of Friendship

During the Christmas season, I heard from Mary Lu Keef who was once the eight-year-old little girl who gave me many insights into life at Camp Aliceville during World War II. She wrote, "I have to tell you that, as a result of your book, I heard from two former Aliceville classmates that I had not seen or heard from since we moved away (from Aliceville) in 1945! Thanks to e-mail, I am now in contact with them."

In 1942, Mary Lu's family moved from New York state to Alabama so her father could take a civilian employee position at Camp Aliceville during the war. Her mother also worked at the camp hospital, and Mary Lu attended Aliceville Elementary School during that time. It was quite a change of culture and experience.

Mary Lu also wrote that she had recently found her father's Camp Aliceville pass and other ID cards belonging to him at the time of the war. She is considering visiting Aliceville in May 2008, when former German POW Hermann Blumhardt may visit with his friend John Gaffey. Hermann's wife Katie, who also provided many memories and insights for the book, was hospitalized a few months ago with a heart problem, but she has made a successful recovery and plans to visit their children in Michigan in May.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Camp Stewartstown--Mixed Emotions

A reader in Pennsylvania has sent along a clipping from the November 11, 2007 edition of the York, PA Sunday News entitled "Enemy." This article profiles a 15-acre POW enclosure set up at the playground in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. It was in operation from June 30, 1944 to October 31, 1945 and housed nearly 2,000 Austrian and German prisoners of war in an area that, before the war, offered space for Sunday School picnics, fairs, and carnivals. Residents had used some of the land at the playground for Victory Gardens during the war.

The southern portion of York County, PA has many orchards and canneries, so the POWs were welcome as workers there, especially during harvest season.

It is interesting to note that York County had once before been home to POWs--from 1781 to 1783 during the American Revolution when British captives were held at Camp Security in what is now Springettsbury Township.

The York newspaper article notes that some residents believed the POWs were not guarded well enough and that they were treated too well. Others viewed them as "just boys, like county youth fighting overseas."

One resident wrote at the time, "Pity would rise in our hearts as we thought of them so far from their homeland. Then we remembered the hometown boys fighting and dying on foreign soil, in a war started by their leader--and one would then feel almost like a traitor."

These same sentiments could easily have been expressed by many people in Aliceville, Alabama, at that time.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Former Resident Remembers Camp Aliceville--During and After

I heard this week from a man who grew up in Aliceville. He remembers being a young boy at West End Baptist Church and seeing the German prisoners march by the church, with their goose step rhythm, on their way from the train station to the camp. Like many Aliceville residents during WWII, this man's father was an employee at the camp.

After the camp closed at the end of the war, he remembers swimming in the pool that was still open on the POW camp grounds. When he was a senior in high school, he played football on the new sports field that was built near where the Officers Club had once stood. He also played baseball there when he was in college.

NOTE: Fox6 News in Birmingham will broadcast a feature about Aliceville and its Veterans Day celebration on the its 10:00 PM broadcast on Monday, November 12.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Remembering Picnics at Lubbubb Creek

My e-mail this week included a heartwarming surprise from the daughter of an Aliceville resident whose mother met and married one of the American officers in charge of Camp Aliceville during WWII. She wrote as follows:

"All of my life I heard stories about 'the camp' and was so delighted to find your book. I have been reading the book to (my elderly mother) and it has brought back so many memories. She vividly remembers the day the first train pulled into the station and the soldiers marched down the street singing--that's one of the stories she told over the years. She always said they looked so bedraggled, but their voices were so strong. I can read a name and she'll remember some little piece of gossip that she hasn't thought about in years! She loved remembering the picnics at Lubbubb Creek, for instance, AND I had always wondered but never knew until your book, what the distinct smell was in the old school sawdust (oiled sawdust). It has been so healing for my mother to relive those years through your lovely book. Thank you so much for giving my mother such a wonderful gift during this last stage of her life."

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Herbert Jogerst POW Sculptor

A few weeks ago I heard from Michael Rutherford, a historian in Tell City, Indiana who shared a great deal of information about the Indiana Cotton Mills in Cannelton, Indiana, when I was working on my first book, North Across the River. Rutherford had read my new book and sent along an interesting packet of information about a German POW named Herbert Jogerst who was held at Camp Breckenridge in Kentucky.

Jogerst had studied art and sculpture in Strassburg before being drafted in WWII. His military service in the German army took him to Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and eventually North Africa, where he was captured near Metaches El Bab. In an interview conducted by Gerhard Auer and translated by Sister Ruth Ellen Doane, Jogerst describes his first treatment as a POW. "We were loaded into stockcars....We were collapsing of thirst. There were comrades who were willing to give away their entire fortunes if they could only have a drink. Some soldiers became insane due to thirst."

He describes being transported in this manner through North Africa. "Sometimes we were shot at through the closed wagon (train car) or our guards pushed their bayonettes through the slits in the wagon walls. That was hell. In Casablance we were handed over to the English. Then, for the first time, we were treated as people."

He was sent by ship to Canada and then by train "in Pullman-type cars which were comfortably equipped express train cars" to Kentucky. At Camp Breckenridge, he and 3,000 other POWs kept the streets and barracks clean at a military installation where thousands of American soldiers were being trained.

Jogerst says camp life was monotonous at first. Because he could draw good letters, he became a sign painter and also tried to paint portraits when he had paints. "As the Americans noticed that I was able to paint, my fortune changed," he told the interviewer. One day a guard came to him and said, "The wall in our Mess Hall is so bare. Could you paint something for it?" His fellow prisoners asked him to paint scenery for a theatrical play, which he did in secrecy at night until guards discovered him missing at late hours from his barracks. When these watchmen saw his work, however, they gave him permission to paint without restriction and even commissioned him to paint the altar in the camp chapel.

During his time in Camp Breckenridge, Jogerst was given a barracks to use as a studio and instructed other POWs in calligraphy and figure drawing. When a music pavilion was built by the POWs for their concerts, he built a fountain for it. While others played chess in the evenings, he worked with piles of stone to built the fountain.

One of his most interesting encounters was with the well-known press photographer Alfred Eisenstett (who was Jewish and had worked for the Berliner Illustrierte magazine in Germany before emigrating to the US). Eisenstett was creating a picture report about German POWs for Life Magazine when he visited Camp Breckenridge. When shown the many paintings Jogerst had created, the photographer asked the artist what he planned to do with them. Eisenstett wrote in his article that Jogerst replied, "One day someone will take them away from me."

Among the responses to this article, Life received letters from more than 2,000 readers who wanted to help this German POW preserve his work. As a result, Life placed six overseas trunks at Jogerst's disposal. He was able to send more than 300 of his paintings and carvings home to his mother for safe keeping.

Monks at the Monastery at St. Meinrad (in southern Indiana) also saw Jogerst's work and took him to the monastery to work as a sculptor until he was sent back to Germany in 1947. When he returned to Germany, Jogerst bought his mother a house and helped her start a grocery business. Then he returned to the US, where he remained until 1962, doing sculpture work at St. Meinrad and also creating statues, baptismal fonts, and altars that can now be found in 28 American states. See also and

Herbert Jogerst died in Germany on April 3, 1993, shortly before a large group of tourists from his hometown of Waghurst came to the US on a trip. Among them was his son Elmar who was able to see much of his father's work for the first time. That work includes an eleven-foot, 6,200 pound statue known to southern Indiana residents as "Christ of the Ohio" because it stands on Fulton Hill at Troy, Indiana, overlooking the Ohio River.

I have in my files the translation of the entire interview with Jogerst, along with excerpts from the History of St. Meinrad ArchAbbey, which contains photos of some of Jogerst's work, and also news clippings from his son's visit. If anyone would like copies, please let me know.

Monday, October 1, 2007

German POWs in Owosso, Michigan, too.

I love the seredipity of the writing world and the connections that pop up in unexpected places. I heard this morning from Gary Slaughter who will introduce me at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee, in two weeks. Gary has written a series of novels set in Michigan during the last year of World War II. The first of these involves two young women who are charged with treason and brought to trial for helping two German POWs escape from a camp. This novel is a fictionalized account of events that actually transpired in Owosso, Michigan, where Gary grew up. For more information on the Owosso camp, see

Ever since he was a boy, Gary has been fascinated by the subject of the German POWs and has read extensively about them. Like me, he has a small library of books on the subject. I am looking forward to meeting him, reading his novel (Cottonwood Summer--Fletcher House), and comparing notes.

In his letter this morning, Gary did admit to being a graduate of the University of Michigan, which makes him a Wolverine, and said he understood that that made him a "natural enemy" of any Ohio State graduate who is a Buckeye like me. He did say, though, that he had "forgiven worse in people" and hoped I would do the same for him. Since I have a brother who is a graduate of Michigan State University, I already have practice with this and will certainly do the same.

Friday, September 28, 2007

German POW Camps in Pennsylvania

A reader of Guests Behind the Barbed Wire e-mailed last week to say that he has been a WWII history buff for many years. Although his interest centers on the European Theater, he would like more information about two German POW camps in the United States during WWII. One of them was in Hanover, PA, and the other in Stewartstown, a small town south of York, PA.

If anyone has information about either of these camps, please let me know. I will be happy to put you in touch with this reader.

Escaped POW Opened Bookstore in Chicago

One of the more interesting stories I've come across since finishing Guests Behind the Barbed Wire is that of Reinhold Pabel. Pabel was a member of the 115th Panzer Grenadiers who was captured and sent to a POW camp in Illinois. He escaped in 1945, made his way to Chicago, and eventually became the quiet proprietor of a bookstore on Chicago's North Side under the name of Philip Brick. He was captured by the FBI in 1953 and, after many headlines, returned to Germany.

Jim Reed, owner of Reed Books: The Museum of Fond Memories in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, told me about the book Pabel wrote about his experiences--Enemies Are Human--and sold me a copy of the out-of-print volume. It was fascinating reading, and Jim wondered out loud what had ever happened to Pabel. I was curious, too, and found an article on the Internet in a Chicago-style "what ever happened to" column.

It turns out Antiquariat Reinhold Pabel is still in the book business, now in Hamburg, Germany. His motto is, "Name the book--We'll get it!" and the website for his bookstore carries the following notice at the bottom: Gegruendet 1948 in Chicago, Illinois (founded in 1948 in Chicago, Illinois).

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Searching for Passengers on the Henry Baldwin 1944

After my essay on Camp Aliceville appeared in The Anniston Star, I heard from a man in Eastaboga, Alabama, who is searching for former German POWs who might remember making the Atlanta crossing on a Liberty Ship named the Henry Baldwin. He says they picked up 350 German POWs in Algiers and discharged them in Newport News, Virginia about May 23, 1944.

If the name of this ship sounds familiar to any of my readers, please let me know by e-mail, and I will put you in touch with this man.

The Liberty ships carried supplies to American troops in Europe and then carried POWs (mostly Germans) back to camps in the US during WWII. There are numerous memories about those crossings--how crowded the ships were, how they tossed and turned sideways and front to back, sleeping in hammocks in the hold, eating pretty well, and wondering where on earth they were headed, and what would happen when they got there.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Words from Germany

An e-mail arrived this month from one of the former German POWs who was held in Camp Aliceville during WWII. The e-mail was in English, and his English is on about the same level as my German--readable and understandable, with a few quirks here and there.

Wilhelm wrote that he has been reading Guests Behind the Barbed Wire with great pleasure, while keeping his German to English dictionary to hand. I smiled when I read this, because while writing the book, whenever I wanted to communicate with one of the former POWs, I definitely kept my English to German dictionary to hand.

Wilhelm wrote that Walter, another former POW, has told him he keeps his copy of Guests on his writing table and goes back to it frequently. Wilhelm also expressed the thought that it is a shame so many others of their war comrades have passed away and cannot read the book.

Finally, he wrote that he thinks often about Aliceville and especially about what he calls his "hospitable house," which is the home of a couple named Chuck and Jane who have been his and his family's gracious hosts on several occasions when they have returned for visits and reunions. He also said he thinks often about Mary Bess, whom he describes as "the soul of the museum." (This is the Aliceville Museum in Aliceville, Alabama, which is a wonderful repository for records having to do with Camp Aliceville.)

Friday, August 31, 2007

Songs and Soft Drinks

Just returned from a water aerobics class where two friends said they'd recommended Guests Behind the Barbed Wire to their neighbor. I told them about the letter I received this week from the Japanese-American gentleman from Honolulu who guarded German POWs from Camp Aliceville while they harvested peanuts during WWII.

They liked the image of the German prisoners singing the Coke jingle through the fence to their Japanese guards. Hm-mm, said one of my water buddies. It would have been so much simpler if, instead of a war, they'd all just had a Coke together--the Germans, the Japanese, and the Americans, and been done with it.

Too bad international politics isn't just that simple.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Peanuts, POWs--and Japanese guards??

Yesterday I received a letter from a gentleman in Honolulu, Hawaii who was a member of Company L in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during WWII. Most history buffs know that the 442nd was a unit of Japanese Americans formed in February 1943 from among second generation Japanese-American citizens in Hawaii and Japanese volunteers from the internment camps set up inland from the west coast in 1942. These men became a cohesive military unit that fought valiantly for their country, the USA, in North Africa and Europe and were honored with a White House ceremony after the war.

It is probably not so widely known that one of the first assignments for Company L of this combat unit created an unusual juxtaposition for WWII. In August 1943, after completing basic training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, members of the 442nd were ordered over to Camp Aliceville in Alabama to guard German POWs being sent down to Dothan for the annual peanut harvest.

It must have seemed ironic and amusing to local residents to see crews of ten German POWs, guarded by three Japanese Americans, headed out to the peanut fields each morning that fall.

The gentleman from Honolulu graciously shared some of his memories of that experience:

1. He watched the Germans, many of whom had been members of Erwin Rommel's Afrikakorps, digging up the peanut plants and stacking them on 7 to 8 foot poles so the peanuts could dry before picking.

2. He remembers that the German POWs were kept in fenced-in compounds at night after their work. They would come to the fence each evening after dinner and sing songs to their Japanese guards who had gathered on the other side of the fence. One song they sang had a chorus (probably a yodel) that he remembered as sounding like, "Hi Lai Lai de Hi Lai Lai."

3. When Company L of the 442nd created their company song entitled "Go for Broke," they used the chorus they'd heard the German POWs singing as part of their song. Down through the years, this song--including the "German" chorus--has been sung by veterans at various functions. (If anyone is interested, I have a copy of this combat team company song.)

4. He also remembers another song the German POWs sang to their Japanese guards in a teasing sort of way. He says it was actually the "Ice Cold Coca-Cola" jingle, but very funny pronounced in German accents. Coca-Cola was a regular part of the soft drink diet in POW camps across the country.

War creates many strange juxtapositions. Wonder what would happen if the generals from one side could share music with the generals on the other side.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Aliceville Native Remembers II

An Aliceville native whose father owned a gasoline distribution business was drafted (late in life) during World War II. When he shipped out, his wife took over delivering gasoline to Camp Aliceville. It was that kind of time.

Aliceville was founded by a group of Scottish immigrants who traveled to wherever land was free or very cheap. They migrated together to Ireland, then Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Georgia, and then Alabama. Some went on to Louisiana and then Texas.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Opposite Our Natural Being?

Speaking of people displaced by war, surely that includes soldiers coming home wounded physically and/or emotionally. I saw an interesting quote in this morning's newspaper from National Guard Captain Jeffrey Cox. Cox is a former social worker for troops in Iraq and now a contractor for the Army's Wounded Warrior program.

War "seems like, at times, the absolute opposite of what our natural being is," said Cox.

He has urged the Society of St. John the Evangelist (Episcopal) to offer a healing retreat to help returning soldiers adapt to life back home and reconnect with their faith.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Aliceville Native Remembers

I heard recently from an Aliceville native who grew up there in the 1950s and 1960s, and I was happy to hear him say that he did not find any incorrect details in the story of the town and its World War II camp for German prisoners of war. This reader added post-war detail about the town, noting that once the camp shut down, local children swam in the POW pool and played baseball and football on its recreational fields. He remembered going to VFW meetings with his father in what had once been the officers' club at the camp.

This reader said he learned enlightening details he'd never been aware of but wished the book had had even more information about the tarpaper barracks, the jeeps and jazz bands, and the violin a POW made from popsicle sticks.

Whew! The book was already more than 500 pages long.

Why not a chaplain?

A retired sociology professor has written to ask for more information about Johannes Bogdan who became the camp spokesman (replacing Walter Meier) at Camp Aliceville after the "educational" program began at the camp in 1944. The professor was curious about why Bogdan, who was a former minister, was in military service and not serving as a chaplain.

My information about Bogdan came primarily from my own translations of the newspaper published by the Camp Aliceville German POWs themselves--Der Zaungast--and included several of Bogdan's own writings to the POWs, in the form of articles in that newspaper.

Does anyone have personal knowledge of Bogdan's background or of his family?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

How the Germans Felt

I heard this week from a reader of Guests Behind the Barbed Wire who said he's been interested in World War II since hearing stories of the Battle of the Bulge from his great uncle when he was a little boy. This reader said he's read everything he could about the war but that this book gave him a glimpse of everyday life that he could not have gotten anywhere else.

For me, the most thought-provoking part of his letter was the comment that Guests had given him another perspective on World War II. "I had never even considered how the Germans felt," he wrote. Then he thanked me for broadening his view.

Wonder what could happen if the whole world broadened its view!