Alexander Field: The POWs
By City Times staff
Continued from the previous edition
In 1945, the airport was converted into a prisoner of war camp, housing 100-200 German prisoners of war. They lived in airport barracks built by the Civilian Conservation Corps
Prisoners worked side-by-side with local growers harvesting cranberries in the Wisconsin Rapids area.
Local residents recall the airport being fenced in and the airport hanger, as well as the barracks, housing the POWs.
While most reported fair treatment as a POW, many Japanese and German prisoners held in the United States camps would opt for escape, and even death, for loyalty to their country.
POWs helped the war effort just by their presence. While working in the cranberry industry they eased the labor shortage as American soldiers went off to war.
The prisoners were paid a salary – somewhere around 80 cents per day – for their work, and given a small stipend by the Red Cross.
While the POWs were eventually returned to their homeland, a few of them have been known to return to revisit the area.
One visit occurred in 2003-04 and is recalled by a former city official.
“Back when I was mayor, one day these two old gentlemen walked into my office,” said Jerry Bach, Wisconsin Rapids mayor 2002-06. “My assistant said, ‘There is a couple gentlemen from Germany here to see you.’
“So they came in and said, ‘Well, we didn’t know where to start, but way back when we were prisoners of war at your airport here, and we worked out on the Gaynor cranberry marsh. We just wondered if you knew any (people from the cranberry marsh.)’
As it turned out, Bach did know someone. Bach arranged for the two men to have dinner with Gordy Dempze and his wife, and take a tour of the marsh.
“It just kind of made you think the world comes and goes,” Bach said. “Here we had prisoners of war in town and here 50 years later; they are back here visiting the area.”
Bach said that the two former POWs were successful businessmen in their late 70s at the time.
“They said that they had excellent treatment (here,)” he added. “They were picked up at the airport, and they always had a good lunch for them. They said that the people here were so friendly, they were almost embarrassed that we were at war with them.”
The barracks have since then disappeared from the field.
“My dad, back in 1945, he bought one of the old POW cabins,” said Julie Bach, whose father John Jeffrey preserved one of the structures. “They were taking them down wall-by-wall, so he picked them up and took them out to Lake Wazeecha and built a little cabin for us.
“They just tore it down probably five years ago, and now there is a beautiful log cabin there.”
Continued next week
Author’s note: If you have recollections regarding the POWS, or the airport barracks, please contact our office at 715-256-4446 or [email protected].