Fear sometimes produces acts of courage and honor. Unfortunately, more often than not it brings out the worst in people, producing acts of shameful stupidity that stand out in history. Watching the many US state governors over the last couple of days, all spouting about how they will not allow Syrian refugees into their states ( even though they don’t have the power to do so) brought this thought to mind. NJ guv Chris Christie even went so far as saying he wouldn’t accept a 3 year old Syrian orphan. Classy move for a classy guy.
But I shouldn’t be surprised. This behavior is not new to us here in the States. In the beginning years of WW II in Europe, public opinion here was heavily against accepting any Jewish refugees fleeing the war there. We even went so far , in 1939 when the Holocaust was underway, as barring the MS St. Louis, a German freighter carrying Jewish refugees, from entering our country when they came to our ports. Our ships even went so far as firing warning shots to keep them from docking. The same went for Cuba and Canada. The refugees from this voyage of the damned were returned to Europe where a number died in concentration camps.
Again, another classy move that we try to keep swept under the rug of history.
I wonder what these governors would do if they were faced with the situation that took place here in WW II with the Prisoners of War (POWs) who were brought to this country? A lot of you probably aren’t even aware that there were POWs on our shores during that war.
But they were. And not just a handful.
I first became aware of it years ago when I was working as the finance manager at a Honda dealership. An older lady that I was working with said I reminded her of her late husband who was an Italian who came from the area of the Italian Alps. I asked how she had met him and she told me that she first saw him when he was marching down the street of her hometown in Alabama. He was a POW heading to the camp outside of town where she later met him at a event there.
Imagine that happening today.
But imagine the outrage today if we were faced with bringing over 425,000 POWs here. That’s right over 425,000 foreign fighters were here during WW II. Most were German but here were also Japanese and Italian troops. The same troops who were responsible for many of the millions upon millions of troop and civilian deaths that took place during the war were just down the street in Anytown, USA.
And not just down the street. There were about 700 camps located in every state but a few and most allowed the POWs to be hired as workers in all fields except those that dealt directly with the war effort. They were out and about in many communities. It is reported that great deal of the slack caused by a shortage of manpower lost to the war was taken up by POWs, especially in the field of agriculture.
And it wasn’t slave labor. They were paid the same wage (paid in scrip that could be redeemed at stores within the camps) as our own troops would have been paid. In fact, they were treated just like our own troops. In fact, their accommodations and food were often superior to the those being experienced by our troops still in the heat of battle. And better than our own citizens of Japanese heritage were experiencing at the internment camps where they were held during the war. Another shameful, fear-based move.
POW Theater Production at Aliceville Alabama Camp WW II
There were classes, art studios, gymnasiums, camp newspapers and musical and theatrical performances put on by the POWs. Throw in an activity director and you’ve got yourself a kind of Aryan Catskill Resort. In one bizarre incident, Adolph Hitler even sent payment to sponsor an art exhibit at one camp.
Think about that. During the worst war in the history of mankind, the greatest enemy ever known to mankind sent a check to the US for an art show for his troops. If there had been a Fox News ( or television, for that matter) at the time, I can only imagine all of the talking heads that would be exploding all over the screen.
Some of those POWs stayed here and integrated into our country and some went home to try to rebuild their own countries. There is a lot more that could be told and it’s a great story. I urge you to learn more. Below is a great story from the wonderful RadioLab from earlier this year called Nazi Summer Camp. It’s about a half hour long but if you have time you will find it informative and entertaining. It’s a half hour that will not remind you of the shameful behavior of some of our leaders.