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BEHIND THE SCENES with Alison Jones


How did you first learn about German POWs in America?

I first heard about the POW episode from a family friend who grew up on a farm in South Carolina. When he was a boy, his father simply announced one day that German soldiers would be arriving the next morning to work on the farm. I was startled by the image of a German soldier working the back forty, in the midst of war. I had to know more about what that was like, both for the Germans and for the Americans they met.

So much of this history was surprising to me. In your process of research and interviewing, what surprised you most?

First and foremost, I was struck by just how well most German POWs were treated, and how welcoming ordinary Americans were to these enemy soldiers, even inviting the prisoners into their homes as guests. Some Americans, such as Walter Winchell, were outraged that German soldiers were getting such a warm welcome, as we note in the piece. Black American GIs also took great offense at seeing enemy soldiers treated so well at a time when their own rights and privileges were severely limited. However, a key goal of the POW program was to "turn foes into friends," as one historian remarks. By that standard, one could argue the POW program had a lot of success. I was surprised by how warmly many former POWs spoke of the U.S. all these years later, and by how starkly the German POW experience contrasts with recent U.S. wartime history. One POW I interviewed said that when he read how U.S. soldiers treated war prisoners at Abu Ghraib, he couldn't believe it: "I met other American soldiers, not these."

Was it difficult to locate former POWS? And were they generally happy to talk to you about this time in their lives, or resistant?

Finding the former POWs was one of the biggest challenges of this project. World War II ended 70 years ago, in 1945. The war veterans who remain alive are very old. So as I did my research, I was keenly aware that I was racing the clock. Only a small window of time remained in which to capture these stories first-hand. My search began with historians who had studied the period, museums devoted to this history, local historical societies and veterans' groups. Several professors, including Arnold Krammer, Mike Waters and Fritz Hamer, were extremely generous with advice and background, including providing me access to their files.

Some historians, notably Bob Billinger, shared contacts in Germany. The Camp Hearne and Florence museums and the Darlington County Historical Society were also very helpful. In the U.S., I found former POWs such as Heino Erichsen who had emigrated to the U.S. Many more POWs returned to Germany, though. I wanted to speak with some of those men, too, so with the help of the American Council on Germany I traveled to Germany to try and find them. In Germany, it was a matter of one contact leading to another. I had been warned that Germans who fought in World War II would be reluctant to talk with an American reporter. Once I met the former POWs, though, I found them surprisingly open to discussing their imprisonment in the U.S. - eager to do so, even. I had the impression that few had asked them about this period. Also, their memories of imprisonment are not traumatic. Their stories were remarkably similar. They spoke of relief at leaving the battlefield and arriving in the U.S. And all of them talked about the food. When they entered the dining halls and saw tables spread with meat, bread, fruit and cheese, they knew they would be treated well. They talked about the wide range of views that coexisted within the POW camps, ranging from pro-democratic to rabidly Nazi, and the tensions between those groups.

Finally, the Holocaust came up in every interview. Most of the men I interviewed were fighting in North Africa when captured, and were far from Europe when the Nazi concentration camps were transformed into gruesomely efficient death camps. While in prison in the U.S., though, they were shown films of the German extermination camps and had to face the extent of their regime's brutal policies. It was a touchy business to find myself sitting in the home of a 90-year-old German man, needing to ask about the extermination camp films. As it turned out, the old men raised the subject themselves in nearly every case, if only to express horror at the films. I only know what they said to me, of course; I can't read their hearts. But I imagine they know that in Germany, the Holocaust inevitably shadows any conversation about World War II.

You are a print reporter as well as an audio producer. Why did you choose to do this as a sound story? What are your favorite sound elements?

There's power and immediacy in hearing the actual voices of people who lived this history, both Germans and Americans. The era became more vivid for me as I spoke with these people, and I wanted listeners to share that experience.

I also happen to love World War II-era music. For me, it was a pleasure to live with those tunes. The music, along with the archival audio, helped me to connect with the spirit of the times.

Finally, I enjoyed working with natural sound elements from Germany. Music is a strong presence in Germany's streets and parks. The bells, violins and accordions that one hears in Germany's public spaces are part of the sonic signature of the place.

I'm continuing to work with this material and do plan to produce written pieces as well. I'm glad the sound story came first, though.