The combined efforts of Page County farmers and German laborers from a prison camp in Clarinda were instrumental in assuring that the United States reached strategic goals in World War II.
That was the assessment given by Chad Timm during a program he presented Tuesday, Aug. 6, at the Lied Public Library in Clarinda.
“The way they interacted helped us win the war,” said Timm, an associate professor of education at Simpson College in Indianola.
After the United States entered the conflict, the War Food Administration had issued a directive to farmers throughout the country to produce more commodities to meet the needs of American forces fighting overseas and also to take care of people in places liberated by the Allies. These were classified as vital war aims.
But by 1943 in Iowa, Timm said, about 75,000 men aged 18 to 25 were in the military, and “many of them would have worked for a time as farm laborers.” The result was a severe shortage of agricultural workers.
During this period, with the Allies going on the offensive in Europe, there were thousands of German and Italian soldiers being captured, and the decision was made to confine them in facilities in the United States and to utilize them for farm work..
In August of 1943, an announcement was made that a prisoner of war camp to house German POWs was to be built on a 300-acre tract of land on the southeast edge of Clarinda. The estimated cost was $1 million. A similar camp was to be built in Algona in northern Iowa.
“A number of communities in Iowa applied to have a camp built, but only two were approved,” Timm said, adding that he believed the selections were made with the support and influence of Iowa Sen. Guy Gillette, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Construction of Camp Clarinda began in September of 1943 and was completed in mid-December. The first contingent of German prisoners arrived in January of 1944. The eventual capacity was 3,000 POWs. Also at the facility were 500 members of the American garrison.
With the spring planting season for 1944 approaching, Page County farmers were informed that POWs could be utilized for agricultural work, but only if specific procedures were followed. A primary requirement was that POWs could not be used unless no civilian workers were available.
“You had to run an ad in the local paper asking for help,” Timm said. “Then you had to take the ad to the camp” if no responses were received.
Under established rules, a farmer had to request a group of 10 prisoners at a time for particular projects.
“But the average farmer in Page County did not need that many,” Timm said. “Maybe one or two at a time was enough. So some farmers couldn’t get access to the POWs in February or March of 1944.”
To deal with this situation, an Emergency Farm Labor Association was formed. Farmers pooled their money to acquire groups of POWs, who then were allocated to individual producers as needed.
A stipulation of the Geneva Convention, which the United States adopted, was that prisoners of war had to be paid for any work they did.
At Camp Clarinda, a POW could earn 10 cents a day for work inside the facility, or 80 cents a day for work outside of the compound.
To be employed for agricultural labor, a prisoner had to be paid what was called the “prevailing wage” at the time -- up to 60 cents an hour in the Page County area.
But the hourly wage did not go to the POW. The difference between that amount and the prisoner’s 80-cent daily compensation went to the U.S. government.
Timm said that by the end of the war, it was estimated that the government made a profit of about $35 million from POW labor.
Prisoners were transported to farms to assist with such chores as planting seeds, cultivating crops and harvesting grain. They also tended cattle, built fences and dug drainage ditches.
In June, July and August of 1944, Timm said, there were 963 farm placements of POWs to Page County locations, with a total of 12,491 “man-days” recorded. A “man-day” was defined as one POW working eight hours.
The work done by the prisoners aided area farmers in meeting food production goals set as part of the U.S. war effort, and officials generally agreed that without the use of German POW labor, American agricultural quotas could not have been met.
“The overall 1944 farm season was a success because of the relationships that developed between Iowans and the German POWs,” Timm said, adding that 60 farmers in Page County used prisoners as laborers that year.
The positive associations that emerged among county farm families and the prisoners they employed often became long-lasting, with some Germans returning after the war to visit local residents whom they had known.
Timm said this demonstrated that “even in the midst of the horrors of war, humanity can prevail.”
Along with reviewing the utilization of POW labor in agricultural operations, Timm said that the manner in which the German prisoners were treated at Camp Clarinda was significant.
“We know that if we don’t treat them well, it could impact our boys overseas,” he said. The United States did not want to give Germany an excuse to retaliate against Americans who were prisoners in that country.
The Geneva Convention required that the POWs in Camp Clarinda receive adequate food and medical care, and that they would have access to recreational activities. These conditions were met throughout the time of the facility’s existence, Timm said. The International Red Cross made several visits to inspect the camp to certify that it was in compliance.
Among other activities, prisoners took part in soccer matches, and a 12-piece orchestra performed at special events. “Instruments for the orchestra were donated by folks in Clarinda,” Timm said.
He said the camp’s first commander, Lt. Col. Arthur Lobdell, “did such a good job at public relations that when the camp opened, for the most part, it operated very smoothly.” The Army was so impressed with Lobdell’s ability that it transferred him to Camp Algona to resolve problems that had been reported there.
In early 1945, it was announced that the German prisoners at Camp Clarinda would be leaving -- to be replaced the next month by Japanese POWs.
“But that’s another story,” Timm said, indicating he would like to return and present a separate program on the presence of the Japanese prisoners in the county.