Linda McCann grew up near Waverly and all through her life she heard stories about the prisoner of war (POW) camp that was south of town during World War II.
“I heard about it and I knew where it was,” she said. “I knew it had German war prisoners.”
She was shocked to find that many people in the Waverly area had never heard anything about it.
When she was considering writing a book on the subject, she asked her granddaughters, students in the Waverly-Shell Rock Community School District who were 16 and 18 at the time, if they knew anything about the POW camp.
“They couldn’t believe they’d never heard of it,” McCann said. “The older one said, ‘Why didn’t we learn this in school?’ I said I would bet that her teacher had no clue there was a POW camp just outside of town.”
McCann talked to her publisher and was given the go-ahead for a book on the subject.
That’s how her book, Prisoners of War in Iowa, came to be.
McCann has written 12 books on Iowa history.
“I like to find parts of Iowa history that people maybe don’t know about and then write about it,” she said.
She enjoys researching the subject and then talking about it when she has finished writing.
McCann said Iowa had two primary POW camps in World War II. One was in Algona and the other was in Clarinda.
Each camp held about 3,000 POWs from Germany, Italy and Japan.
Iowa had 17 other “branch camps,” of which the Waverly camp was one.
“They (the branch camps) would have prisoners to help with the harvest or with a specific project,” McCann said.
“When I started researching, I had no clue there were that many in the state.”
She talked to many older people who had worked with the POWs, had them work on their farms or had gotten to know them in some way.
Her research led her to an unexpected conclusion about the war effort.
“I’m convinced now the U.S. would have had people starving,” she said. “Our soldiers would have had a tough time if we wouldn’t have had the prisoners here to help harvest the crops.”
The POWs also worked in canning factories, in hemp fields and made ropes in the 11 Iowa hemp factories.
Seed corn companies used the prisoners to detassel corn and a camp in Charles City put in a sewage system for new housing additions.
“If a company was willing to sign a government contract to hire POWs, they could do it,” McCann said.
The prisoners were treated well, she said.
“The two big main camps were a luxury to the Germans,” she said. “They wrote about this later.”
The main camps were at military installations, but the branch camps had to be located wherever there was room.
“At Audubon they used the roller rink,” McCann said. “Shenandoah and Eldora used old CCC camps – Civilian Conservation Corps camps.”
The POWs went to the branch camps for four or five months and were then returned to one of the main camps.
The branch camps were not equipped as well as the main camps, but the POWs thought the branch camps were a luxury, too.
“The prisoners couldn’t believe how much they were eating and how much free time they had,” she said.
Some of the POWs took classes and some at the Algona camp formed a band that eventually traveled around to perform.
Many of the German POWs brought their families to Iowa after the war to meet the people they worked with and to see the places they lived.
“We have fourth-generation Iowans who are friends with fourth-generation Germans – young people – because of these POWs,” McCann said.
She wants her grandchildren to realize that treating people well pays off in the long run.
“I think it’s important that our grandkids know we treated these prisoners as we had agreed to with the Geneva Conventions,” she said.
McCann’s presentation about the Iowa POW camps will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, July 15, at the Norelius Community Library.