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!