Are you, like me, a devotee of World War II history? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you are, and one day, out of the blue, you learn something you didn’t know about World War II history. Would you . . . write a novel about it? You probably wouldn’t, but I did!
In early 2015, my husband Joe told me about Camp Algona, a World War II prisoner of war camp that was located near Algona, Iowa, about forty miles north of where he grew up. I’m from Iowa, too, but I didn’t know anything about POW camps in the Hawkeye State or any other state. (I hated history in school—maybe I slept through that lecture.) As soon as I heard about Camp Algona, I knew I would write a story about it so others could learn, too.
At the height of the war, there were over 425,000 POWs imprisoned in over 500 camps across the country. Between 1943 and 1946 there were POW camps in every state except
Vermont. The vast majority of the prisoners in those camps were German, but there were also
Italian and Japanese soldiers behind barbed wire on American soil. Because most of our able-
bodied men were off fighting the war, we needed prisoner labor. The POWs worked on farms, in nurseries and orchards, in mills and forests, and in factories not directly related to the war effort. They earned eighty cents a day (paid in “script,” not actual cash) for their efforts. Employers were required to establish that no Americans were available to do the work the POWs would do. Also, if the prevailing wage was higher than eighty cents per day per prisoner, the U.S. Treasury pocketed the difference and used it to defray the costs of maintaining the POW camps.
The prisoners were well-treated. Unlike Germany and Japan, the United States followed
the Geneva Convention protocols to the letter. Living conditions for prisoners mimicked the
conditions for American soldiers in their own encampments—same barracks, food, and medical care. At many camps, the prisoners were allowed ample opportunities to participate in artistic endeavors, sports, and a variety of classes. The hope was that these prisoners would write home to their families, describing the decent and humane care they received here, and perhaps that would influence the care our American soldiers received in German POW camps.
I live in Virginia, so I was certainly curious about the history of POW camps here. By
mid-1945, there were 17,000 German POWs living in twenty-seven base and branch camps
around the Old Dominion. One of those branch camps was in Salem in southwest Virginia,
where about two hundred POWs were housed in two buildings that still stand to this day. They
were hired by the Crumpacker Company and the Roanoke Orchard Company for pruning and
general orchard work, Greendale Farms for corn shucking, and the Neuhoff Packing Plant (later renamed Valleydale Packers) for hog butchering. Additionally, POWs worked for the Roanoke Water Department, helping to clear the land that eventually became Carvins Cove Reservoir.
Early in my research, I discovered the existence of the Salem camp. Because I knew someone who had access to those two buildings, Joe and I got a tour one afternoon. The smaller
building was used as a barracks, and there was evidence of a “catwalk” above the sleeping area. Apparently, it provided a safe and convenient way for one guard to watch over all the prisoners during the night. The other building was used as a mess (dining) hall.
So yes, strangely enough, I did write that novel after discovering there was a POW camp
near Algona, Iowa. I began writing after I retired in late 2017, and after numerous drafts and
edits, I expect My Mother’s Friend to be published in October. My story involves Phee Swensson, a seventeen-year-old high school senior who is a gifted pianist. While on a tour of
Camp Algona with her pastor father, Phee meets Sergeant Horst Ebinger, the leader of the POW music groups at the camp. Phee is recruited to be the accompanist for Horst’s choir, and an unexpected friendship ensues. Eventually, their friendship deepens, and Phee soon realizes she’s fallen in love with Horst. (Oh, dear . . .) He teaches her to say “Ich liebe dich”—“I love you.” It’s their secret. Can they keep it? Where will it take them? How far will they go?
My Mother’s Friend is written for young readers and adults alike. I hope you’ll check it
out. And please visit my website as well, especially my blog page. To date, there are fifty-three posts. Take your time. You’ll learn something—I promise.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband Joe and Bart, Dog Number 8. My Mother’s Friend is her (soon to be published) debut novel.