So may of our conversations begin with things I see on television. Take for instance last weekend when my wife Paula and I were watching a number of documentaries from WWII. The most memorable one was a documentary on the Battle of Britain. During part of the program, the narrator mentioned prisoners of war and how that was handled here in the U.S.
That got us thinking ... were there any WWII POWs held in Alabama? Turns out there were ... and there’s a fascinating story about them.
During World War II, Alabama was where approximately 16,000 POWs were held in camps scattered across the state. The Army Corps of Engineers built the first two of these camps in Aliceville and Opelika.
Paula and I had no idea that POWs were held in Lee County. Camp Aliceville in scarcely populated northwest Alabama was the state’s largest camp, designed to hold 6,000 POWs. Camp Opelika held 3,000 inmates. Toward the end of the war, there was such a demand for prison labor that 20 smaller satellite camps were built.
The accommodations — especially at the two largest camps — were apparently nice enough that very few prisoners tried to escape ... or they knew the odds of their being captured were so high they didn’t even try. When prisoners did make a break, they were usually tracked down quickly by the FBI and branches of the military police. And let’s face it, a German-speaking POW was pretty easy to spot among the southern drawling natives. Plus, police in Alabama had hunt-by-scent dogs and possibly a bloodhound or two to make things even harder for an escapee to make a clean getaway.
Paula and I were surprised to learn that whenever the inmates were not working in the fields for local farmers and merchants in Opelika, they could be found playing soccer or writing in the POW newspapers established at the two large camps. The prisoners also formed an orchestra at Camp Opelika that included several professional musicians and was led by a professor from the Musical Conservatory at Hanover.
Late in the fighting, the operators of the camps were looking into offering correspondence by the University of Alabama and Auburn University (Alabama Polytechnic Institute at the time of the war) but time ran out on this project.
By the time the war was over, the German prisoners and a few Italians were loaded up and shipped back home ... only to find to the widespread devastation left behind in Europe.
I read that several of the ex-POWs wrote to the people they had known while living in the Alabama prison camps asking for help. The people that once held them captive responded by sending, clothes, shoes, food and other items.
Today, there is little left of the camps. But you can visit the Museum of East Alabama in Opelika for a look at the remainder of the camp that so few people know about. If you feel like a genuine road trip, check out the Aliceville Museum and Cultural Center in Aliceville, which is located about 40 miles west of Tuscaloosa.