By Linda Emley
I remember how shocked I was the first time I heard that World War II POWs had worked in Orrick during the potato harvest. When we think of POWs, we always picture some faraway place. We never think about having a POW camp in our own backyard.
Charles McCorkendale lent me a book, “The Enemy Among Us. POWs in Missouri During World War II” by David Fiedler. I read over the book, but it still didn’t seem real to me. Then one day at the Ray County Museum I got a call from a gentleman in Kansas City who asked me if I knew anything about where the camps were located in Orrick and I knew it was time to work on this story.
After talking to several people, I found there were different opinions about where the camp was located. We narrowed it down to east of Floyd, which is southeast of Orrick. This picture, taken near Floyd, is Omer Hewlett and two POWs loading potatoes on a wagon. Omer’s daughter is Jean Hamacher, who provided this picture and shared stories that she remembered about the POWs.
During the World War II, 400,000 Axis POWs were shipped to the U.S. and around 15,000 POWs came to Missouri. There were four main camps, six boat camps and 20 branch camps in Missouri. Orrick, Liberty, Riverside, Lexington and Atherton north of Independence were the local branch camps. Ft. Leonard Wood and Camp Clark in Nevada were two of the main camps. One report said that the Orrick POWs came from Camp Clark, but I have also heard they came from Ft. Leonard Wood.
Life in the POW camps was good for the Italian and German soldiers. They got to play sports, form bands and theater groups, use camp libraries and were well fed. The book said that the Italians ate lots of noodles and ground up good steak to make meatballs. There was even mention of them enjoying frog legs and other local foods. Some local residents told me that the Italians were good cooks and often asked folks to join them for dinner.
The real moment of truth came when I found written proof in a 1945 Richmond Missourian that the POWs were in Orrick. Once again the local newspaper proved a glimpse of life as it really was during the war.
This was in the paper on July 5, 1943: “Italians Arrive At Orrick Tomorrow – Digging On. The Italian prisoners will arrive at the Cringan farm camp, two miles south of Orrick, tomorrow afternoon, and will commence picking up potatoes on Wednesday, so A.C. Gibson of the Bert Offutt Company told the Missourian today.”
A few days later, the July 12 Missourian gave more details. “Potato Quality and Volume At Orrick Excellent. The average quality and yield of potatoes in the Orrick district are better than was anticipated three weeks ago. It is reported that the Italian prisoners are working fairly well, and that they say the Orrick district throws away better potatoes than they raise in Italy.”
On July 22, this was in the paper: “Italians are Leaving Orrick Potato District. Elmer A. Paulson of Orrick, Monday stated that the contract with the War Department for employment of Italian prisoners is winding up this week, and that the camp will be vacated. Mr. Paulson says that the growers do not regret getting the war prisoners for work, but they are more expensive and not as satisfactory as the home folks. One grower says that the school children, from Richmond and elsewhere, made better potato pickers than the Italians. Earlier one bunch of prisoners refused to work. They were put to cutting brush, and later moved back to the internment camp at Nevada, Mo.”
Then on July 26, 1943: “The Orrick district is finishing the harvesting of a seven million dollar crop of potatoes. Potato digging continues, but on a smaller scale. The Italian prisoners had not yet moved out, at the week end report.”
Finally, the 1943 potato harvest was over. “War Prisoners To Camp Through Here Friday Forenoon. A Mussolini-like wind and rain blew down most of the tents at the Italian war prisoner camp on the Cringan farm south of Orrick, early Friday morning, only three hours before the moment of breaking camp to return to Camp Clark near Nevada, Mo. As soon as breakfast was over, Friday, the Waller Truck Line and four other trucking groups began loading the camp equipment, in due course loading the King’s men, who had soured openly on Mussolini before the Sunday ax fell. During Friday forenoon, the motorcade of Italian war prisoners moved through Richmond and south on Highway 13 toward Nevada. County Agent Ira Thornton deserves praise for aiding in the securing both bond and free labor in harvesting the Orrick potato crop, so thinks The Missourian.”
POWs were brought in again for the 1944 season. “Potato harvest got under full swing yesterday, July 12, in the Orrick community, according to Ira Thrornton, county extension agent. All civilian help regardless of age found a place to help yesterday. More civilians are needed now and will be throughout the harvest season. All prisoners-of-war workers left their barracks yesterday at noon to help with the harvest. All prisoners as well as civilians will be used every day the ground is suitable to work.”
There was a minor twist in the potato harvest this year, the paper reported on Aug. 10, 1944. “A German war prisoner is reported to have escaped yesterday from the group being used as laborers at the W.J. Small plant at Orrick. The prisoner is reported to have stolen a motor car. The prisoners being used at Orrick are from the war prison camp south of Liberty. A description of the escaped prisoner was given to the highway patrol.”
The manhunt was soon over. “The German war prisoner who escaped near Orrick early Thursday morning surrendered to a women at a farmhouse south of Excelsior Springs Thursday evening. He went to the home of Mrs. Lucy Dillion, who lived in the Miltondale neighborhood five miles south of Excelsior, and obtained a drink of water. He told Garth Dillion, when he came to the house after being summoned by Mrs. Dillion, that he wanted to be taken back to the camp. Mrs. Dillion said that she ‘wasn’t afraid.’ Local rumor has it that he was hot, thirsty, hungry and covered with mosquito bites.”
1945 was the final year for POWs in Orrick. This report was published May 17, 1945: “Ira Thornton, county extension agent, reports that an order has been placed for 350 prisoners of war to work in the potato fields of Ray County. This will be the third year the prisoners have been used here.”
Then on June 18: “According to the Orrick Advertiser, a camp for taking care of about 350 prisoners of war who will work in Orrick during the potato harvest will be located on the D.B. Loyd farm near Floyd. The potato harvest will start July 10.”
In the fall of 1943, Italy joined the allied powers and half of the Italian POWs transferred to the ISU, Italian Service Unit. In 1944, around 30,000 Italian POWs worked in non-combat roles in the U.S. and were treated like American GIs. When the war was over, all Italian POWs were home by Christmas in 1945.
Life was not the same for the German POWs. In the spring of 1945, rations were cut and their quality of food was greatly altered. After word reached the POW camps that Germany had been defeated, there was concern about mass escape and suicide attempts, but it never developed. The German POWs were not returned home to Germany. All POWs were off U.S. Soil by April 1946, but most were turned over to the European Allies. They were used in POW camps in Great Britain, France and some other smaller countries to help rebuild after the war. A few were trained and used to help set up the new government in Germany.
The story does not end here because friendships were formed and it’s estimated that around 5,000 POWs later returned to live in the U.S. Many others came back to visit their former POW locations on vacation.
In the 1970s, many of the former POWs had retired and there was an increase in tourism to the United States by this group. Jean Hamacher said that her father kept in touch with one of the POWs who wanted to move back here, but he never did get the opportunity to return.
The war ended and soon it was time for another potato harvest in Orrick, but that’s a story for another day.
Have a story or historic photo to share with Linda? You can reach her at raycounty email@example.com or see her in person at Ray County Museum.