Updated: Apr 27
Twenty years ago, I sat in the waiting room of a dentist's office. As anyone would do while waiting for their name to be called, I rifled through the magazines sitting on the table next to me—a well handled selection of all the usual suspects. People, Time, Highlights. Nothing caught my attention, that is, until I came across a thin periodical entitled, “Renaissance” . It caught my attention, first off, because I had never heard of it before. Oddly, I haven’t been able to locate a copy since. Secondly, it stood out because of its contents. It was a compilation of history—real life stories of a somewhat simpler life, from a time long gone by. It was geared more towards a “senior” reader. These were stories sent in by normal folks from different walks of life, and from different places all over the United States
I flipped through page after page of photographs, some sepia toned, some full color, depicting small town and farm life…stories from the 1920’s, and 30’s, and 40’s. If the story was unique and publishable, it made it into that particular issue.
So why on earth am I writing about this one particular day that I sat in the dentist office waiting room twenty years ago, reading a magazine I’d never heard of? By the way, I have been back to the dentist since then. It’s because of the one story in that magazine, the only story that I remember. It was about a German POW camp located within a small town in the Midwest during World War 2. I was shocked. Due to my ignorance, I wasn’t even aware that there were German POW camps in the United States. I knew about the Japanese internment camps, horrible as they were. But, prisoner of war camps? Of course, it makes so much sense. Where else would they go? Sure, prisoners could be kept overseas. Yet, I’m sure that would prove to be difficult, especially in the areas where fighting was readily occurring.
At the peak of WW2, as many as 30,000 POW's were landing in the U.S. ports each month. There were soon camps in every state, except for the state of Vermont and the territories of Hawaii and Alaska. Most people know very little about these camps, or the men that lived and worked the land surrounding them until the end of the war.
The article in “Renaissance” focused on a small camp located in a Midwestern farming community. It housed only a small group of German prisoners…maybe one hundred. The prisoners were well cared for, with roofs over their heads, clothing, three square meals a day, and side work in the surrounding farms. They were given books to read, games to play during free time, and were even provided supplies like paints and pencils for those who were artists. The pictures that went with the article were of smiling, healthy men, and spoke of them as happy to be there, safe and warm, and not fighting for their lives on the battlefield anymore.
I was fascinated. I couldn’t get the picture of those camps out of my head. Even back then, twenty years ago, when I wasn’t writing, I still thought the idea of it would make an incredible story. I got on the computer and searched our still burgeoning world wide web for whatever I could find on these camps. Needless to say, I found precious little. The internet was young, and lazy me didn’t want to go to the library. Go figure.
Still, the idea haunted me. POW camps. German prisoners…here on American soil.
As the years moved forward, and my desire to write grew, the story of a German POW camp morphed in my head, to of all things, a story of love, courage, and forgiveness. There was nothing holding me back, except for my own fears. I set those aside, and purposed to write this German POW camp story. Nothing would stand in my way now.
Except, maybe one aspect. The setting. Where should this camp be located?
And so, the real research began.
A good number of prisoner camps were located in the central United States, particularly the Midwest where there was lots of open space and farmland. So many U.S. men were overseas fighting in the war, and prisoner camps provided labor to local farmers. The Geneva convention laid down the stipulations for prisoners of war to be paid a good wage for their labor. That money would be traded in for tokens that could be used at the camps for supplies, snacks, etc. A pretty sweet deal, if you ask me. But, it still didn’t solve my question. Where would the camp in my story be located?
I started by researching some of the bigger camps located in places like Texas and Wisconsin. The more I read, the more unsettled I became. I didn’t know these places. I’ve never been to Texas or Wisconsin. Sure I could read about them, and study photographs and such, but it just wasn’t the same. So, instead of researching a setting, I researched as many camps as I could. I learned about camp life—where these men came from, how they were captured, as well as the life of the American military that oversaw the camps. As my knowledge grew, so did my story.
Then one day in 2019, I was talking to a dear friend of mine. I told her about this POW camp story I had boiling in my brain, which I was determined to soon put down on paper. She, having a vast knowledge of Sonoma county, as well as the town we lived in, said, “You know that there used to be a German POW camp right here in the town of Windsor during WW2, right?” My response, “Come again? Here? You mean right here…in my sweet town...where I live?” She just laughed.
Oh, what joy I had. Pure elation. I had my setting, right here, in my very own home town of Windsor, California. I know Sonoma County. I know Windsor…I just didn’t know there once was a German POW camp located a short bike ride from my house. No wonder that street is called “Old Camp Road.”
I immediately jumped on the internet to search. The Windsor Historical Society became my greatest source. They have a nice exhibit on Camp Windsor at their center, and a bit of information online. There were only a handful of photographs available, but enough to give me an idea of camp life and prisoner faces. I was still amazed how precious little I was able to find online, even after all these years. What I wanted was real life stories. The “Greatest Generation” was quickly fading away.
My husband and I took bike rides out to Old Camp Road, and the actual site of where the camp existed. Its setting was rolling hills and vineyards, and beautiful old oak trees. Of course there are now neighborhoods with expensive homes built up around it. But, some artifacts and reminders of the camp still remain. The flagpole at the entrance. A cement foundation. An old, dilapidated wooden shed. And, the actual pull-up bar that the prisoners would use for exercise. I would stand there, at the perimeter where I believed the camp property line to be. I would envision barbed wire fencing…and I would dream of what might have happened, what could have happened.
Of course, my story is fiction, but the camp was real, and it was here in my town of Windsor, California.
Now if only I could get the novel published. But that will be a whole new story for another time.
Be sure to check out the Windsor Historical Society online