World War II is something that certainly nobody will ever forget. The immediacy of it though has faded over the years, the horrors and triumphs quickly becoming something only known from history books. Very little is physically left of the war, and that which is preserved is locked up in museums. It's a rare occasion that something new is discovered and even rarer that the new discovery shines a light on a lesser-known aspect of such a huge and complex event.
When Curtis Peters discovered a cache of old letters in an old box of Corn Flakes, it wasn't immediately apparent how historically important they were. While it's not an aspect of war we often hear about, German POWs and their experiences in America surely shaped future relations between the two countries. In many ways, it was an opportunity for the two enemy nations to get to know each other on a human, personal level.
Once Germans were brought to America for incarceration, they often found life as a POW to be better than life as a German soldier.
While not as glamorous as propaganda comics portrayed, the differences were stark. One German soldier recalled being shipped to the front stuffed into a luggage boxcar with his fellow soldiers, shoulder to shoulder. Train travel for POWs in America was luxurious by comparison, with upholstered seats for every prisoner.
There were many opportunities for the prisoners to ease into a non-military way of life.
Besides soccer teams, there were dramatic productions, operas, even art exhibitions, providing these captured soldiers with creative outlets far removed from the regimented violence of war.
It wasn't all fun and games. Officers were not required to work, but regular soldiers were put to use in various capacities, most commonly on farms.
Germans and Americans had one major thing in common: an incredibly strong work ethic. The POWs immediately took to the jobs given and quickly adopted the mannerisms and customs of their American coworkers.
One farm in particular, a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp, belonged to the Brocks, the family to which 400 letters were mailed after the war by former POWs.
After a lucky meeting at a diner, the letters made their way to Lipscomb University where professor Charlie McVey has been translating and documenting them.
The letters paint a bittersweet picture, happy news of new wives and babies, mixed with reports of the struggles they faced back home. Germany was ravaged by a war on two fronts, divided in half by rival foreign powers. The economy was in shambles and even bare necessities were unavailable or unaffordable. The country of course would be rebuilt but thanks to regular care packages sent from a certain family in Tennessee, many hardworking men and women were able to wear sturdy leather shoes and laundry detergent to wash clothes, a true luxury in postwar Germany.
These young men addressed their Tennessean benefactors as "Aunt" and "Uncle," showing just how close the prisoners had become to their American custodians.
There's something to be gained from letters like these, that isn't given high importance in teaching about war. The men and women who fight are, for the most part, ordinary people, their politics forced on them by circumstance, their guns ordered to point at an "enemy," who they might otherwise call friend.