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December 12, 2006   Email to Friend 

WWII Comes To Life At Aliceville POW Museum
Teresa Sanders

Aliceville Museum Executive Director Ann Kirksey.
The sleepy farming community of Aliceville, Ala., was almost 5,000 miles from the front lines in World War II. But when 300 stone-faced German prisoners of war marched into town on June 2, 1943, the residents of Pickens County turned out in droves to see the "devils" who had terrorized Europe and plunged the world into conflict.

"Of course I wanted to see what the enemy looked like," recalled Robert Hugh Kirksey, a retired attorney and former probate judge of Pickens County who, at the time, was about to report for basic Army training at Fort McClellan. "I wanted to see who these people were that we would have to come up against. I heard one of the POWs say later that the American civilians thought the German prisoners were going to have horns sticking out of their heads."

Instead, 300 tired and bedraggled German POWs stepped off the train, and Aliceville was quickly transformed into a major player in the war effort. For the next few years, Aliceville would be home to one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the United States.

Today, however, the town has become the birthplace of reconciliation as former prisoners return to Pickens County to relive memories and support the Aliceville Museum, which preserves this unique time in Alabama history.

Former prisoners of the Aliceville camp, who recently were featured in a documentary on The History Channel, said they couldn't believe how vast the United States was and that there was no damage from the war to any of its cities and towns. Oddly enough, many of the prisoners also recalled their time in Aliceville as some of the happiest days of their lives.

The town residents had known for some time that the project under construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the southeast side of town was to be an "alien internment center." At the time, World War II was in full swing and the German forces of Adolf Hitler were bullying every country in their path to the Fuhrer's ultimate goal of world domination.

America had only been in the war for a year and a half, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941. So, it was understandable for residents to speculate that it would be Japanese prisoners of war who would be held there.

Everyone from farmers, bankers and lawyers to doctors, nurses and teachers thronged the streets for a chance to see the captives who were on that train.

Kirksey's father was a local cotton buyer and chairman of the American Red Cross chapter, so he was privy to information that the first soldiers at the camp would be German, not Japanese, POWs coming in on the Frisco railroad line. He asked his son if he would like to meet the train to see the soldiers.

"They still had that discipline," Kirksey remembers of those first prisoners of the camp. "They lined up in perfect rank and marched from the railroad to the camp. I stayed there until they marched out of sight."

In approximately one week, the initial 300 swelled to more than 3,000 prisoners in the camp. Before it closed in September 1945, the camp would house approximately 6,000 German prisoners of war.

The camp is where many of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, Germany's elite troops, spent their captivity after being thoroughly defeated by the Americans and English at Tunis.

At that time the British were already housing thousands of POWs and were asking for help from the U.S. to relieve some of their burden.

Adhering strictly to the Geneva Convention, POWs housed at Camp Aliceville were treated like American soldiers. Their housing was better than most German soldiers received from their own army and even though many American civilians received only rations of meat, sugar, butter and other foods, POWs sometimes had access to foods civilians weren't allowed to buy.

Different records show a variety of figures, but it's estimated that before the war ended in 1945, the U.S. had built between 600 and 700 POW camps. At one time, Camp Aliceville was the largest internment facility in the country.

About 1,000 U.S. military and civilian workers were employed at the Aliceville camp. Its existence and the workers who lived in the town pumped much-needed cash into the local economy. As for the prisoners, many worked at various jobs outside the camp under strict military supervision. Local employers could apply to the camp for POW labor.

The camp ran like a city within a city. POWs gardened, held classes and even ran their own printing press and published a camp newspaper titled "Fenced Guests." Many were outstanding artists, sketching and painting scenes of camp life and memories of their homeland.

That was more than 63 years ago. The only thing of physical significance that remains of the camp itself is an old chimney that was part of the enlisted men's club on the old camp grounds. The Aliceville football stadium is directly across from it.

A historical plaque on an access road that runs parallel to Alabama Hwy. 17 proclaims the spot as the Aliceville POW Camp. However, some of the prisoners' artwork, along with uniforms, books and hundreds of photographs of camp life survived and are on display at the Aliceville POW Museum.

The U.S. government took about two years to dismantle the camp following the end of the war, but the memories of that time live on today through the dedication and hard work of Aliceville residents who rallied to preserve that important part of the town's history through the museum that's dedicated to the POW camp.

According to Aliceville Museum Executive Director Ann Kirksey, Robert Kirksey's daughter, the two buildings that house the Aliceville POW Museum came into being through a united community effort.

"In the '80s, former POWs started coming here looking for something from their time here," Kirksey said. "There was a collection of items in the Aliceville Public Library, but it wasn't in a place where a lot of people could see it.

"Then in 1989 there was a POW/guard reunion here. It was such a huge success that city leaders started thinking they needed a place to keep these things, and grow it," Kirksey said.

The first step was to find a building for an actual museum to house the collection. The Meridian Coca-Cola Co. accepted a proposal to donate two downtown buildings it no longer used for the museum on the condition that the 1947 Coca-Cola bottling operation and its machinery be housed there as a museum piece as well. The Harry Wheat family also donated the plaza area there.

The deal was made, but there was still much work to be done to the buildings. A loan of about $200,000 was taken out from the two banks in town. The Aliceville Museum officially opened its doors in March 1995. Through memberships, private donations, admissions and gift sales, those loans have long since been paid.

The museum now houses the largest World War II German prisoner of war camp collection in the United States, according to Ann Kirksey. She credits that to the relationships the townspeople and the POWs have developed over the years. Several reunions have taken place that included POWs traveling to Aliceville and Aliceville residents traveling to Germany. POWs and their families, as well as many Aliceville residents, have donated items to the museum. The museum also houses a room that honors Aliceville men and women who served their country in the military.

"The museum is a place of reconciliation for men who fought on both sides," Kirksey says.

It's also a place of wonder for any World War II buff. Among the vast collections are a full uniform worn by a German soldier in the Afrika Corps, helmets, weapons, insignia and medals such as the German Iron Cross.

Among its prized possessions is a map of Africa issued to each German soldier serving on the continent that is fully intact and displayed in the museum.

Interesting videos of interviews with former POWs and townspeople who remember the camps also are available for viewing.

Adult admission is $4. Student and senior citizen admission is $3.

Operating hours are Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. and other times by appointment.

The Aliceville Museum is at 104 Broad Street, Aliceville, Ala. 35442. For more information about Camp Aliceville and the Aliceville Museum, call (205) 373-2363 or email: museum@nctv.com.

Teresa Sanders is a writer from Fayette County.

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