Sunday, April 26, 2009

Missouri Sig Ep House Housed WW II POW's

Traveling exhibit has relics from POW life WW II captives held in Midwest.

Beverly Holder of the Moberly Public Library looks at a book on board the “Bus-eum” Friday in Moberly. The exhibit describes the lives of World War II POWs held in the United States.

“We pride ourselves on telling the untold stories,” Bus-eum driver and historian Irving Kellman said yesterday during a stop outside the Moberly Public Library, where a handful of military veterans made their way through the museum.

The “untold stories” include accounts of Italian POWs being housed in Columbia in vacant dormitories at Stephens College and in the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house near the University of Missouri campus.

Those POWs worked the McBaine river bottoms as well as other farmland in Boone and Callaway counties. The National Youth Administration camp off Highway 54 at Fulton housed both German and Italian POWs in branch prison camps.

“It’s not in our history books,” Kellman said. “Our teachers don’t teach it.”

The Bus-eum, a project of the not-for-profit educational organization TRACES, features a series of 10 display boards telling the story of foreign POWs on American soil, from “pre-capture life” to postwar settlement. The display tells those stories using traces of narratives left behind in letters, diaries, military records and other documents.

One particularly telling aspect of the exhibit is the unique relationship forged between German POWs and Midwestern farmers. Many of those bonds spanned the Atlantic even after World War II ended; some foreign soldiers even stayed or returned to the Midwest to marry.

Kellman can’t understand why the story of the 425,000 POWs in the United States is not better known. There were 660 internment camps scattered across the country, with three base camps and dozens of branch camps in Missouri. With few exceptions, the camps complied with the terms of the Geneva Conventions, the international document that spells out how prisoners of war are to be treated.

“It’s nothing to be swept under the rug,” Kellman said of the untold history. “To our total amazement and wonderment, it’s not in our history books.”

The traveling exhibit had special significance to Beverly Holder, the Moberly library director of adult and young adult services. Holder said her father, U.S. Army soldier Henry Seibert, had been responsible for moving German and Italian POWs throughout France during World War II.

POWs interned in the Midwest came across the Atlantic on “liberty ships” that evaded U-boats. After arriving in New York, Boston or Newport News, Va., the prisoners were taken to America’s heartland aboard Pullman train cars. The driver’s side of the bus has information about American citizens of German ancestry who were interned even after the war ended.

Holder described the bus-eum as “wonderful,” even though some of the history it describes is painful.

“It paints reality,” Holder said. “A lot of history was horrible, miserable.”

Making that information available is a vital part of the library’s mission, she said, adding, “It’s what a public library does.”

The library paid $300 to have the bus-eum stop in Moberly on its route from a home base in St. Paul, Minn. TRACES receives additional financial support through grants and humanities organizations, mostly in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa.

The organization has two other mobile museums and last year visited Moberly and other sites with its exhibit about Midwest POWs in Nazi Germany.

The traveling museum has scheduled stops from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at 515 Market St. in Hermann and from 1 to 4 p.m. tomorrow at 1101 Business 54 in Fulton.

Reach Jodie Jackson Jr. at 573-815-1713 or e-mail jjackson@columbiatribune.com.