German prisoners of war, including members of the Afrika Korps, marching through Aliceville, Ala., in 1943. Photo by: Aliceville Museum
September 12, 2010 12:12:00 AM
Aliceville, Ala., was the site of one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the United States during World War II. Construction of Camp Aliceville began in August 1942 and the first prisoner of war arrived in June 1943.
Those first prisoners of war were all Germans captured in North Africa. Many of them had been members of General Erwin Rommel''s famed Afrika Korps. They arrived in Aliceville on trains of the Frisco Railroad. As the war progressed, German prisoners from across Europe were sent to Aliceville.
Camp Aliceville grew to contain more than 400 buildings and house 6,100 prisoners of war. It also employed more than 1,000 military and civilian guards and personnel. The camp was a barbed-wire compound complete with guard towers. Across its 400 acres were barracks, bakeries, chapels, theaters, a hospital and assorted other buildings. There were sports fields, gardens and even an amphitheater.
Camp Aliceville had a reputation for humane treatment of prisoners of war. That caused resentment among some local residents. At a time when Americans were experiencing the rationing of food and other items, the Germans at Camp Aliceville were receiving ample meals with fresh meat and vegetables. The camp also had an orchestra, theater productions, and the prisoners played soccer. There was even a noted puppeteer, Walter Buettner, who after being drafted into the German military was captured at Normandy and sent to Aliceville. At the camp he was allowed to form a puppet theater.
There was a legitimate reason for the good treatment the prisoners at Aliceville received. The American military hoped that the good treatment German prisoners received would set an example the Germans would follow with American prisoners of war in Germany.
In fact Germany, until January 1945, did treat Allied prisoners of war far better than did Japan. However, in January 1945 as Russian troops moved into Germany, thousands of poorly clothed and fed American and Allied prisoners of war were forced to march for three months, and more than 500 miles, through freezing weather.
Camp Aliceville closed on Sept. 30, 1945, and all that remains at its former site is a stone chimney next to an industrial park. However the camp lives on at the Aliceville Museum.
In recent years the memory of the good treatment the German prisoners received has paid remarkable dividends. After learning of the creation of the Aliceville Museum, former German prisoners of war and their families have donated sketches, paintings, wood carvings and other memorabilia from the camp to the museum. They have also given German uniforms worn by former prisoners at the camp.
The German donations along with donations from local residents have resulted in the museum featuring the largest World War II German prisoner of war camp exhibit in the United States. The Aliceville Museum is located in at 104 Broad St. NE in downtown Aliceville and is only about a 30-minute drive from Columbus. It is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. or by appointment.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]