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Published:August 9th, 2011 15:48 EST
World War II and Algona, Iowa: Part I

World War II and Algona, Iowa: Part I

By Donna Cavanagh

   

There are few positive stories associated with World War II. When we watch movies or see newsreel footage, we see Hitler, the Nazis and enemies embroiled in battle. However, Algona, Iowa has a different story to tell. Algona has earned a prominent place in American history but the reason why is still unknown to many Americans.

From April 1944 to February 1946, Algona was the site for a German Prisoner of War Camp. Not only did the 287- acre camp hold German soldiers, but the location was also the regional headquarters for the 34 POW camps in the Midwest. In total, the United States had 600 camps throughout the country. Algona housed between 2,500 and 3,216 POWs on a monthly basis. A total of 10,000 POWS called Algona "home" during its nearly two years of existence.

In January of 2001, the Camp Algona POW Project committee was organized. The committee, composed mainly of local residents plus some outside advisors and volunteers, wanted to build a museum in honor of the prison camp, the American soldiers who worked there, the people from Kossuth County, Iowa who served in the military during the Second World War and the German prisoners as well.

"The camp had a broad impact not only on the prisoners but on the community," said Donald Tietz, an Iowa native and Algona resident and committee advisor who is founder of Heartland Industries, a commercial real estate development firm. At first, the community was nervous about having Germans literally in their backyard, but as more people came in contact with the prisoners who worked the farms or worked in town, they got to realize that Hitler and the Nazis were their enemies-- not the German people."

"We searched and collected information and artifacts from American and German personnel who were at the camp," said Jerry Yocum, a former history teacher and present committee member who serves as historian and manager of the museum. We have located more than 60 of the prisoners who were at Algona and we collected more than 500 photographs of the camp buildings, personnel and work sites. We also have scanned images of paintings, journals, writings and letters."

Also in Algona, but not in the museum, is a 60-piece Nativity Scene, built by six German prisoners, that has garnered worldwide attention. The goal of the museum is to tell the story-- to show the world the positive outcome of this camp. As a history teacher, Yocum realized that local residents had little if any knowledge of the Algona camp. He incorporated Algona`s history into his curriculum, but he -- as did other townspeople-- feared that important history lessons were in danger of disappearing.

`It was funny that all this interaction took place in this community and yet, many of the generations who followed after the war had no idea that anything of this magnitude occurred. They didn`t understand that that the prisoners came into our lives as our enemies but left as our friends."

In July of 2004, the 4,000-square-foot museum opened its doors. The museum, which is opened from April through December, welcomes approximately 2,000 visitors per year. The Museum charges a small admission fee and all proceeds return to the museum for educational programs.

"We used to be open only on weekends in June, July and August, but this year, we are open every day, and I think we will see an increase in our visitor numbers because of this," Yocum observed.

 

There are four main exhibits in the museum:

Camp Algona-- the Prisoners` Experience focuses on the prisoners, where they came from, their role in the military and when they were captured.

 

Cultural Expressions behind Barbed Wire demonstrates what prisoners did in their spare time when they were not working the farms.

 

You Must Remember This tells the story of the 230 American guards and their interaction and sometimes romance with the townspeople.

 

World War II Comes to Algona is a tribute to the 2,600 Algona-area residents who fought in war.

Opening in late August of 2011 is For the Country`s Sake--an exhibition about the approximately 95 Algona-area women who served in the military during the war.

 

"So much history happened right here, and we need to continue to get the story out," observed Tietz. I`m the last generation that remembers first-hand the war years. My dad owned a school bus that used to transport the prisoners from the camp to the farms to work. I was small, but I remember him talking to the prisoners since he spoke fluent German because his family came from Germany. He would say that the prisoners were not our enemies, but truly our relatives. It was truly a learning experience and a time to understand that we are all human no matter where we come from."

For More Information about Camp Algona POW Project:  http://www.pwcamp.algona.org

 

World War II and Algona, Iowa: Part II The Nativity Scene

 

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