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Within: Iowa POWs in Nazi Germany
“Fate is strange” declared William L. Shirer—one of Thearl Mesecher’s and my fellow native Iowans who, as a WWII-era print and radio journalist, knew the Third Reich too well. And it has been a strange fate, indeed, which has brought Thearl and me together—repeatedly.
I first encountered Thearl’s unusually poignant and moving POW narrative by coincidence, while a graduate student at Vermont’s Goddard College. I had taken advantage of that non-traditional institution’s off-campus graduate program and continued to live in a commune in downtown Minneapolis, where I’d landed after completing what soon after leaving undergrad school came to appear a dead-end degree in history. Fueled by grad-studies fever, by day I read extensive first-hand accounts of 11 Americans who’d been in the Third Reich; by night I played host at the Black Forest, a nearby German restaurant. At shift’s end in the early hours I’d trudge back to Omega House and plop into bed, where I’d dream of huge Swastikas and barbed wire; well before dawn I’d pry myself out of the sheets, then digest the morning headlines and a cup of coffee before returning to the books and keyboard. This rare, months-long immersion in Nazi Germany’s lingering shadow grew so intense that it got to the point where in the middle of the afternoon I’d swear I heard jack boots marching in the distance—yet when I cocked my head and listened, that disturbing sound would disappear as quickly as it had seized my inner ear.
That first semester of graduate studies was, all around, a heady, intoxicating time: fall 1989! As first the Berlin wall, then one moribund Eastern European regime after another toppled, I knew that “something big” was happening—“but what?” Reading the likes of Thearl’s secret diaries—albeit in abridged form—in an anthology of WWII-era U.S. soldiers’ diaries, the events at hand assumed a context which helped me better understand their origin but hardly their possible outcomes: I’d have to live the answer. I did have a strong sense, though, that “someday I really ‘should’ make something out of this rare account of war’s barbarism and futility—but what?” Again, only time would reveal the answer.
In the meantime, one of the best things that George Bush—senior, that is—did (in my mind) was send me out of the country. Upon the heels of a Gulf War which I as a Quaker vehemently opposed a la “NO blood for oil!”, I was quite happy to serve my country in another, less destructive way—teaching history, English and pedagogy in Czechoslovakia for two years with the Peace Corps… which led me to fall in love with a German nurse, which led me to Berlin, which led me to take up doctoral studies at Humboldt Universitaet in order to secure a residency permit... Quite unintentionally, then, my migrating to Europe for ten years completely altered how I viewed history, let alone the human experience. And, I came to see my childhood prairie homeland with new eyes, too.
While that war (which began, obviously, in 1618) spilled repeatedly, in bloody waves, across most of Northern and Central Europe—causing destruction of Biblical proportions and leading directly or indirectly to hundreds of thousands of deaths—it was not yet a “modern war”. Yes, by then gunpowder had rendered castle and city walls useless for much more than demarcation; yes, the arms gunpowder powered had made armor obsolete and hand-to-hand combat impractical. And, yes, Renaissance-borne advancements in medicine were being implemented on the battlefield even as innovations in architecture were replacing war-rendered Gothic ruins with Rococo grandeur. Still, though, relative to “modern” standards the war remained a localized affair, of keenest interest to shifting rosters of royals and the power elite they sustained. Just as enemies soldiers taken in battle in ancient times largely had been butchered or enslaved, most soldiers “captured” during the Thirty Years War were summarily abused if not slaughtered on-site; they had no hope of being kept alive and cared for as official and officially monitored “prisoners of war”.
“Modern warfare” arose in large part out of two historical developments: the rise of nation states and industrialization. The formation of distinct, complex and large national groupings enabled the formation of massive armies—no longer consisting of some thousands, but of many millions. Just as—for example—the moldboard plow, steamship and telegraph made possible Europe’s far-flung domination of New-World lands in North and South America, Australia and southern Africa, so too automatic rifles, troop-carrying trains or ships and, later, armored tanks enabled colossal conflagrations in even the remotest corners of the globe. Thus, after dress rehearsals during the Prussian wars of 1870-71 and the ugly Boer War three decades later, a tenth of the heavily industrialized 20th century saw outright “world war”; much of the other 90% of that bloodiest of centuries saw prolonged regional wars over, typically, plantation-rich lands (i.e., India, sub-Saharan Africa, Algeria and Vietnam), shipping lanes or oil fields—all of which long kept the wheels of industry and capital-intensive commerce well lubricated.
Both world wars involved an unfathomable number of players—with an estimated five million deaths in the First and some 55 million deaths in the Second. Mobilized industrial giants—Germany, Britain, France, Italy and, later, the United States, the Soviet Union and imperial Japan—sent literally millions of their men, armed with the latest technological gadgetry, off to do battle with each other. As too many millions perished in the trenches, thousands more during World War I fell into the hands of hostile states—so many that most sides acknowledged the need to codify internationally recognized tenets of treatment of prisoners of war for “next time”. When a Second World War not surprisingly arose out of the unresolved conflicts and subsequent instability of the First, the 1929-passed Geneva Convention dictated its signers’ treatment of “the enemy”. While many an enemy soldier were shot summarily upon being captured—by both sides—a far greater number were detained as official “prisoners of war”. Also, because of the unprecedented mobility of troops made possible by modern-era ships and rail systems, for the first time in history it was possible to send recruits from the hinterland of any industrialized power to the farthest reaches of the globe; it was possible, say, to send Bauernbuebchen (“farm boys”) from the Bavarian Alps to North Africa, Normandy or the Ukraine or to send farm boys from the Iowa prairie also to North Africa and Normandy, or to the Philippines; perversely, both sides often fell prisoner to and subsequently landed in the home of the other. As POWs, such young men found themselves in environs so foreign that they might as well have landed on the moon, for little in their pre-television lives up to that point could have prepared them for captivity in such unfamiliar territories…
As a new understanding of history in general and the phenomenon of war in specific took hold of my thinking, I was led to write a dissertation about “Creating ‘New Americans’: WWII-Era Refugees’ Formation of American Identities”; researching and writing that tome provided an excuse to write my first published book, “Out of Hitler’s Reach: The Scattergood Hostel for European Refugees”. An account of 186 souls from Nazi-occupied Europe who found a safe haven in an abandoned Quaker boarding school in Iowa, it is a kind of “Schindler’s List on the Prairie”. That story so captured my imagination that it spawned speaking tours that led me to give some 250 multi-media presentations about it on five continents. After seven years, though, of devoting my life to “spreading the Good Word” about “what Love can do”, I felt called to explore a second amazing story which had unfolded not only in my native state, but in my ancestral home:
During World War II some 400,000 German POWs were brought to the United States and imprisoned in more than 500 camps—one base camp of which had been near Algona, some 50 miles west of Ashlawn Farm. As a girl, my mother would ride past the camp’s intimidating gates enroute to visit relatives in western Iowa. When she was in high school, my maternal grandparents sponsored a former German POW to come to Iowa; he became the older brother my mother had never had, as he lived for about four years in the home where I later was to grow up. In fact, as a child I played with Heinz’ three kids—not once comprehending the significance of absently playing with the offspring of a man two of my uncles would have blown to bits, had he fallen into their crosshairs only a short time earlier. In December 2000, however, the humbling impact of those at least recognizing those paradoxes set in as I began to look into the rich yet almost lost history of German POWs in America. Still living in Berlin, I interviewed some 50 German veterans who’d spent time as POWs in Iowa (Heinz had just died)—and I realized slowly, as in a gradual awakening, that “I ‘should’ do something” to permanently preserve, then present their stories”. So, I gave up my teaching job, flat and three-year-old relationship in Berlin and moved (wait for it!) back to Iowa—after an absence of 17 years.
It took me only a couple weeks of being back on the prairie, however, to learn—coincidentally and at first without second thought—that until the Battle of the Bulge, per capita and in raw numbers Iowa lost more soldiers to Nazi Germany as POWs than any other state! Indeed, a huge trick wedded with plain bad luck resulted in some 1,800 mostly Iowa soldiers of the 34th division being captured by the Germans in one, devastating swoop at Fiad Pass in Tunisia on 17 February 1943—among them Thearl Mesecher! As these astonishing connections became clear to me, an Inner Leading (I really can’t owe that moment of Divine Inspiration to anything else) spurred me to see if any “T. Mesecher” was to be found in the Iowa phone book—and within minutes I had Thearl’s widow on the line, across the ocean, saying that she’d be pleased to give TRACES (a non-profit educational organization I have founded for the purpose) Thearl’s diaries. Similarly, Millie Bied soon thereafter offered me Dan’s extensive writings with as little hesitation or stipulation as sweet Alma Mesecher had Thearl’s; Myrtle Jones made available her husband’s and Jeff Blackman his father’s related artifacts also without missing a beat…
It is not cheeky self-indulgence that prompts me to write at such length about my own journey of coming to more fully appreciate the significance of the POW experience—be it that of German POWs in Iowa or Iowa POWs in the Third Reich. No, I recount my story simply as one shred of proof of how intricately, magically intertwined we all and all things in the world really are. Just as Thearl’s life was saved, in effect, by the very German family he’d come to betray, it was sacrificed in that, in the depths of his soul, he suffered indescribably the rest of his life from a guilty conscience—one which had him expecting he’d burn in a hell perhaps as literal as the figurative one he lived in for some four decades, until cancer cells consumed him from the inside out. That he kept in contact with the very people who worked him like a slave, and even sent them packages to alleviate in some small way their enormous suffering after the war, suggests what a large space they had come to occupy in his mind and heart. The world seems such a gigantic place, yet it isn’t at all: we are as close to all other people and events as we allow ourselves to feel to them; if we will but see it, everything “out there” really is merely a reflection of what’s going on “in here”. Given this indelible bond, the suffering or death of one erodes the rest; to kill another is to extinguish forever a part of our [collective] Self.
I spent 18 years on Ashlawn Farm, then three years in Ames as an undergrad at Iowa State University; despite my down-home background, I was well read as a youth and knew my state’s history intimately. I had to reach a year shy of 40, however, to learn that it was a couple thousand men from my own, isolated corner of a vast country who constituted—at least until December 1944—the largest group of American POWs from any one state to be trapped inside the Nazi hell. Once I found that out, however, almost without looking I found some ten former POWs or their widows in the same number of days… a widow at nearby Northwood pulled out an entire wine case full of papers, photos and memorabilia from her dead husband’s two years at a German Oflag (“officers’ camp”) in Schubin, in occupied Poland… and a farmer from up the road, at Hanlontown, I discovered, had kept intricate records and even recipes during his captivity in Nazi Germany; his widow told me that she used to share the train from Des Moines to Mason City with German POWs enroute to Camp Algona. Rife with equally eerie coincidence, Richard Throckmorton from Southwest Iowa explained how he attended Tabor College at the end of the Great Depression, before marching off to war and becoming an Iowa POW in Germany; only a few years after he left, that very same school was impounded and became Camp Tabor, a satellite of Algona which housed German POWs! (Ironically, in his journal Thearl hoped out loud to return to Iowa in time to see how German POWs were treated “back home”; he got his wish.) Even a former Mason City high school principal had languished in a German camp; in speaking with him some 60 years later I found that we are relatives, with links reaching back to common forbearers in the old Nieuw Amsterdam of 1630!
What I discovered of most importance in the process of unexpectedly locating what would become dozens of Iowa POWs who literally had populated my childhood world—unbeknownst to me as a youth—was that their stories are really all our stories. It was Thearl Mesecher who speculated in a foreword he wrote but apparently never published, that we are all “Gefangenen”; we are all prisoners of the circumstances of the times in which we find ourselves and of our own prejudices and fears. And, we are all made manipulable by those prejudices and fears; we are the “prisoners” of both unseen elites and seen but in genuine leaders who, for cynical and veiled self-serving reasons, shove youthful innocents—armed with the latest technological gadgetry—off to war… to protect their far-away plantations, factories, shipping lanes or oil fields… or opium fields or religion-cloaked agenda… to murder each other in untold numbers. Instead of cultivating relationships where dialog, compromise and the pursuit of mutual interests might mollify if not avoid conflict, they rattle their nuclear-tipped sabers and drop anonymous bombs. Until we recognize our individual roles in a larger history, the ancient human scourge of war will continue to claim countless victims and, indeed, threaten our very future. If so, a war of the nuclear or biochemical magnitude we often foolish, short-sighted humans physically are capable of waging today would mark the end not only of “modernity” but of our entire species.
“Read the implied warnings in these, the writings of your war-weary ancestors, children: for all our sakes, read them—and HEED them!”
to order TRACES' book | Enemies Within |
what follows are Enemies Within's beginning sections, written by or about Thearl Mesecher
by Thearl Mesecher
I have before me three battered notebooks. The first of them I brought for three cigarettes and a chocolate bar from a German prison guard at Friedrichshafen. The second I wheedled from the German post-mistress at still another prison camp at Lauenberg.
The last, a little black book, Billa gave to me. Billa is dead. Why? Because of a war neither of us wanted, should Billa be dead? I also think of little Dorchen, Billa’s sister, and Rudolph Voss, her father, Germans all, enemies of my country during the war, but God knows they had no quarrel with me, or I with them.
Dorchen writes me from Jaskow, from behind the iron curtain in Poland. Jaskow used to be a little German village a few miles from the Baltic Sea and not far from Danzig. I spent nearly two years there as a prisoner of war. Jaskow is no longer German, but it is still a prison although not for enemy soldiers.
I also have a letter of later date from Dorchen’s father. He was my foreman as I worked as a prisoner on a great farm near Jaskow.
In this country, years ago, we would have called him the village blacksmith. He signs his letter proudly, “Rudolph Voss, Schmiedemeister (mastersmith)”. On Sundays in pre-Hitler days, he not only attended the village church on Sundays, but he was its pastor.
He feared God and kept his sanctuary holy. So it was, when he was ordered to open his services with a congregational chorus of “Heil Hitler”, he refused. Only Almighty God, he declared, was honored in his church. So as an object lesson, Pastor Voss was removed from his pastorate, and confined in a detention camp for six months. The church was closed, and, at least until I left there in 1945, it remained closed. Germany could have no other God superior to Hitler.
He writes from Jaskow, December 18, 1946, as follows:
"Gefangenen". It is a very expressive German word. No English word or phrase translates it simply. “Prisoners of War” doesn’t quite do the job. In the German tongue, it means rather prisoner of fate, captives of circumstances under which the individual has no control.
I have wondered since I heard from Dorchen and Rudolph whether the whole world is not populated by “Gefangenen”. I was one of many millions of Gefangenen in Germany during the war. Today I am free--perhaps. But, when will the world be free?
I have kept the record of what I saw happen during my service as a solider and my prison years. It is the record of an ordinary American young man who sought no war, went when he was called, and did the best he could. It is not written in fancy language. My diary, which I began after I was captured, became in the end, an obsession to me. As I look back, I cannot imagine how I ever managed to retain my notebooks. Some items which I am now including were risky to record originally, but I am presenting the entire record from day to day just as I set it down in the beginning. I saw the war from both sides. I saw brave Americans die in battle as heroes. I saw many more brave Americans die as prisoners, and perhaps among them were many who were greater heroes than the wearers of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Our prisoners got no glory. Yet, thousands upon thousands died, miserably and heroically. Perhaps my record will help some to do them honor.
[to read Thearl's and other Iowa POWs' journals order Enemies Within by clicking Enemies Within]
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