Interviewing History

By Carla Kelly

I had quite an experience recently, the sort of thing that sometimes happens to a historian, but never often enough: I talked to an eyewitness to history.

I’m currently researching/writing Story #2 of a 3-novella anthology set during World War II. I’m calling the book, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” after the 1938 love song that came to mean so much during World War II. It’s how three couples met during the war and what happened to them.

I’ve set the second story in Southeast Wyoming, where I used to live when my husband taught at Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington. I was a summer ranger/historian and winter volunteer at Fort Laramie NHS. One of my collateral duties was to be the site’s liaison with Goshen County Historical Society, which met once a month in Torrington.

As I chatted with one older lady after a meeting, she mentioned the POW camps near Torrington during World War II. The prisoners worked on the farms, especially during the sugar beet planting and harvesting. Local beet growers contracted for, say, ten or twelve prisoners, who they’d pick up at the camp located in Veteran, Wyoming, a short distance from Torrington. Usually, they were accompanied by two guards.

What the lady remembered was driving down the West Highway, probably by the armory, when traffic was stopped so a bunch of recently arrived PWs (the preferred term then, not POW) crossed the highway. It must have been near the end of the war, because she said the prisoner-soldiers were so young. “Some were just boys. I cried,” she told me. That comment stuck with me. I wasn’t writing fiction then, but I was already thinking about it.

For this current project, I had a question about something related to the camps. I contacted Don Hodgson, a retired historian who taught at EWC with my husband. Don’s my go-to guy for Wyoming history. If it happened in Wyoming, he’s heard of it.

He listened and told me, “I’ll go you one better.” He informed me that every weekday morning he and a bunch of old guys get together for coffee.  He gave me the phone number of a 98-year-old man whose mother’s sugar beet and bean farm abutted on the PW camp. I called Dave and he agreed to talk that afternoon.

I had a delightful conversation with history. Dave told me some of those little details that flesh out history, or what historian David McCullough calls, “What we went through.” My new friend told me how they used to plant the seeds that turned into big sugar beets, which went to the Holly Sugar factory in Torrington. To his knowledge, this farm only used German prisoners once, but he remembered the Yugoslavs, who were everyone’s favorites. 

“The Yugoslavs hated the Germans,” Dave said. “They had been forced into the German army, and were used as shock troops.” This meant the already unwilling Yugoslavs ended up in the perilous position as front-line troops when they went into battle. Oof.

Dave said there really weren’t too many problems with language. The PWs picked up enough English to get along. Besides, it’s possible to pantomime planting and harvesting routines. 

Dave was in the prisoners’ barracks once. The barracks were old Civilian Conservation Corps buildings used on a few years early by the CC guys. Dave said nothing remains now except large paving stones that formed the walkways. “The barrack was one long room,” he said, with cots on either side. There was a separate building with latrines and showers.

The PWs were paid in scrip for their wages, which they could spend in the camp on extra food, candy, magazines and cigarettes. All in all, it was a pretty good way to sit out the war in safety, with beds and food. Allied PWs in Europe were not treated so well, at least in part because the German stalags soon enough ended up on the front lines of battle. There was never enough food. The PWs literally lived because of infrequent Red Cross packages.

Over here, the PWs were given a modest sack lunch while they worked in the fields. Well, the army didn’t reckon with farm wives, who tsked over the skimpy noon lunch for hardworking young guys, and changed the menu. Mind you, those wives probbly had sons fighting in Europe and the Pacific, but they weren’t about to skimp on feeding German soldiers who were literally saving their crops, because American manpower was elsewhere.

One of my friends remarked that we’ve been blessed with two oceans to protect us. Never was this truer than during World War II. Many of the German POWs (there were also some Italians for a while), came to the US after the defeat of the General Erwin Rommel’s storied  Afrika Korps in North Africa. From North Africa to Southeast Wyoming – quite a contrast in weather and terrain. 

After the war ended in early September, 1945, the PWs were eventually repatriated to Europe. Some of the men spent another year in England and France, helping clear away rubble from the damage their armies caused. Once home, they got on with their lives. Some returned to Wyoming in layer years to visit the farmers they had worked for, and who had turned into friends, in many cases. Some returned early and became US citizens. 

And there was Dave on the phone, sharp at 98, and remembering his interaction with men his age who were enemies, but, well, maybe not so much. He still remembers his family dog, a red, curly-haired bird dog, who ended up spending half of his time in the prisoner of war camp next door. I guess he made friends, too, with men who had left behind their own dogs.

I thanked Dave for his information, and he told me to call any time if I had more questions.  And that was my afternoon chat with an eyewitness to history. It’s harder and harder to find those old guys. Thanks to Don Hodgson, history was a phone call away.