“Torch” was the first combat commanded by Dwight Eisenhower, and the invasion of Northern Africa required only three days.
A new operation began, and the battle for control of that continent raged back and forth for months, culminating in Tunisia with the surrender of 275,000 Axis troops on May 13, 1943.
Many of those German soldiers—including the last remnant of Rommel’s Afrika Korps—were brought to the United States, where they were interned at newly constructed prisoner-of-war camps in rural areas across the country.
More than 100 eventually arrived in Peabody.
Gwen Gaines was in high school then, and Betty Sebree had just graduated when a temporary tent camp was established outside of town to house POWs who preferred employment to idleness.
These prisoners’ strong work ethic helped ease the labor shortage Marion County farmers faced throughout the war.
In September, the initial group of 60 POWs and 58 guards were transferred from a facility that housed more than 5,000 detainees near Concordia and began to work for Peabody-area farmers.
Sebree recalled that many of the new arrivals—and not only the prisoners—had to cope with culture shock, as most of the guards in that first contingent were from the decidedly urban parts of the country.
“The first guards were from back east, New York City, Jersey City, Philadelphia, and they thought that Kansas was nothing but cowboys and Indians,” Sebree said. “Of course, the prisoners didn’t know much more than that, either.
“Anyway, a farm boy came galloping over the hill on an old farm horse one day and somebody yelled ‘Indian!’ and the whole camp panicked and started firing off rifles.”
The tent camp did not last long. Tony Gaines said, “They were outside of town probably two or three months before the fall turned wet and drizzly. They had to find someplace in town to go, because people were getting sick, so they moved into the Eyestone Building.”
According to Lowell A. May, author of “Camp Concordia: German POWs in the Midwest,” the Eyestone Building accommodated 112 prisoners at its peak capacity that November.
Tony Gaines’ father, Joe, hired one detail—several workers accompanied by a guard.
“My dad had four of them who worked for us for quite a while, and they were pretty good workers,” he said. “If they didn’t work, they’d get sent back to Concordia.”
Conditions were not bad at the central camp, according to May, and life at the Eyestone Building, while spartan, surpassed the standards laid out in the Geneva Conventions for the treatment of POWs.
Gwen Gaines noted that the facility’s most distinctive exterior feature was “a hot-wire fence—quite a big one—around on the east side, where (the POWs) got to exercise when they weren't working.”
Time passed and the level of familiarity between the farmers and the workers increased to the point that the guards were no longer required.
May reports that in 1943 the Germans at Concordia were more carefully regulated by the officer-prisoners than by the Americans in charge, writing that “it appears that Camp Concordia’s commander, Lt. Col. John A. Sterling, was a very relaxed officer” and “it also appears that Sterling let the officer-prisoners run the compound,” and going on to describe in detail a near-riot after a prisoner was mistakenly shot. But in Peabody there was no such catastrophe.
In the Gaines house, trust began with compassion and a home-cooked meal.
“They used to send out a lunch with the prisoners,” Gwen Gaines said. “(The POWs) weren’t supposed to go inside the house. But Tony’s mother, Tena, wouldn’t have that—she just couldn’t stand to see them eating sandwiches on the porch while she had a good meal inside. So she fed them all the time, and the guards, when they were there.”
Measure of trust
There was also a measure of trust between the prisoners and guards that was strengthened when, as Sebree recalled, the prisoners came to the aid of a guard injured when he fell out of a truck.
Gwen Gaines recalled two incidents involving prisoners behaving less admirably: once when a POW broke the regulation that forbade prisoners from driving vehicles and once when a POW attempted an escape.
“They were very good workers, but they couldn’t drive a tractor or a truck or anything mobile,” she said. “One time, I was up there and (a POW) got his work done in the field.
“Joe Gaines had just bought a new tractor and the German walked around it and walked around it, and looked at it, and first thing we knew, he crawled up on it and got it started.
“But then he didn’t know what to do and just went around in great big circles,” she continued. “He went around and around and the circles got bigger and bigger and I thought, ‘There goes the milkhouse.’”
The POW missed the milkhouse, but could not get control of the tractor, she said.
“Around that time, the folks came in and the leader of the group of POWs jumped on that tractor and pulled him off,” she said.
“I wish I could have understood what he was saying, because I think he got an awful good tongue lashing and he never tried that again.”
But where someone else might have seen a case of attempted grand theft, Gaines spotted a less-than-malicious motive.
“His imagination just got away from him and he wanted to see what happened if he turned the key,” she said. “It was funny, but I felt sorry for him, because you could see that he was panicked. He just didn't know what to do.
“He was scared to death,” she added. “He had never run a tractor, you know.”
And as for the escape attempt, Gaines said there was only one at the compound and “he was back before they realized he was gone.
“He had struck up somehow a lady of ill repute—you know every town has one—and when he came back, he didn’t know where else to go.” So he went back to the barracks, she said.
The war and the draft continued to take men overseas and intensified the labor shortage that Kansas farmers faced. But aided by the POWs, the work got done.
May indicates that by the end of 1943, the prisoners at the Concordia camp had combined to dress 4,000 chickens and turkeys for market and harvest 20,000 bushels of corn, 15,000 bushels of sorghum, 15,000 bushels of soybeans and 5,000 bushels of wheat.
Many of the POWs who did not work focused instead on education. May lists accredited classes ranging in subject matter from physiology (25 students) to drawing (80) and in class size from advanced English (340) to systematic theology (12) being taught at Concordia at the end of 1943.
Two years later, the war was over and the Peabody camp was closed. Gaines said that some of the detained wanted her father-in-law to sponsor their return.
“They wanted to be here,” she said. “They had never seen land like this or farms as big as we have here, and Joe said, ‘Not at this time,’ because there were a lot of people glad to see that they were going.”
Some of the POWs who were skilled in arts and various crafts had made parting gifts.
“There was one soldier who made Joe Gaines a tank,” Gwen gaines said. “He had been a tank driver for Rommel in Africa, and out of the scraps of stuff in the workshop, he made an exact replica of the kind of tank he drove and it was fabulous. It even had the gas cans on the side.”
Another had made two or three paintings for Tena in his spare time. Gwen Gaines said that “they were lovely, of landscapes, flowers and other things he had noticed around here, and she kept them until the day she died.”
The POWs were repatriated to Germany, and the money they had earned during the war proved valuable to them during the reconstruction effort. Still, Gaines said they kept inquiring about a possible return for several years.
“Eventually, they stopped asking Joe to sponsor them because they had found the sweethearts they had left behind and started families and they were settled,” she said.
Some eventually returned to Peabody, not to find a home, but to visit the place they used to live.
“Several years ago, about every summer, some of them would come back and want to go down and look at the Eyestone Building,” Gaines said. “By that time it was converted into Heckendorn Mowers, but they could still remember where their beds were and this and that.”
Former Kansas University professor of history William M. Tuttle Jr. lists Peabody’s experience with the Germans as a noteworthy—if not completely unique—interaction in the history of POWs in the United States.
The story Tuttle cites is of an Army officer who “cautioned farm wives against further incidents of baking cookies for the POWs and mending their clothes.”
With “Operation Celebration,” Peabody has approached this and other aspects of its history with that same openness—visit peabodyks.com/visitors.html for more information.
And that openness makes the city a port of entry into the past: for those who lived and shaped history, for the scholars, laymen and buffs who embrace it, and for those with just an ounce of natural curiosity about the past in their blood.