P.O.W.’s in Southeast Missouri
Because of the planters’ short slightness during the 1930 in getting rid of their sharecropper and due to the demands for military personal with the start of World War II, Southeast Missouri farmers had a serious labor shortage. This was especially true for cotton farmers, as their crops were labor intensive.
Therefore, the idea of POW labor was very appealing to the planters and landowners.. They saw prisoner labor as a work force they could control and at a cheap price. Contract labor was a very pleasing idea.
The fall of 1944 in the Bootheel saw several contract camps developed to harvest the cotton crop. POW camps were starting to show up earlier that year in field near Charleston, Kennett, Malden, Marston, New Madrid and Sikeston. Malden Air Base supplied these camps with the supplies needed for everyday operations.
Some like the camp at Malden only operated just a little more than two months.
Other camps turned into semi-permanent operation. Sikeston’s operation was one such camp. It functioned from November 1944 through August 1945. Starting as a corn detasseling project for the C. F. McMullin Farm that was a hybrid-seed corn producer, the prisoners stayed to pick cotton there and on nearby farms. During the slack agriculture season they joined other POW in a nearby cotton-oil mill.
Most of the prisoners in Sikeston were Italians. Frequently they made contact with the residents in that they were allowed to use the municipally swimming pool twice a week. Regularly they went to movies at the Malone Theater and attend Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church on Sundays.
The Reverend John O’Neill, the pastor of St. Francis Xavier, was mainly responsible for the presents of the Italians being in town. Acting on behalf of the local agricultural interest, he wrote to Monsignor Cody of the St. Louis Archdioceses in October of 1943 asking about the possibility of obtaining POW’s for farm labor.
His litter was sent through the chain of command resulting in determining that Sikeston of in needed help with labor. Thus, some Italians were sent to the 8,000 farm just outside of town. Here they lopped off the pollen-laden plums from the tops of corn plans to allow pollination with other varieties in adjacent rows, thus producing hybrid seed.
With the success of this experience, farmers in Sikeston and the Bootheel clamored for more prisoners to labor in their fields. Thus, that September, POW’s returned to town, tore down the tent and started construction of basic prefab wooden barracks fitted with running water and heat.
Other POW arrived in Sikeston to total 100 Italian officers. About forth continued to bring in the cotton harvest from 700 acres on the McMullin Estate with another 30 working from Pennell Hunter on acreage owned by S. L. Hunter and Sons farms; and the other 30 checked in at the Sikeston Oil Mill making them the first Prisoners working in a Southeast Missouri plant.
The resident’s attitude toward the prisoners and American guards was quite relaxed until an Italian lieutenant wondered in a Sikeston resident scaring a female resident. Almost everyone agreed the man was just lonely and desiring to talk and meant no harm. The camp officials were not blamed for the incident, but the offender whom the other prisoners also became upset because there privileges were canceled and the easygoing atmosphere, marked by trust, was put in jeopardy by his fellow’s actions. He was soon shipped out of Sikeston to another camp to protect him from fellow prisoners.
Four-hundred Italian prisoners from Camp Weingarten were camped on the Charleston National Guard Armory to the end of 1944 starting in October. When the tents planned for them to live in failed to arrive, the POW’s were moved into the armory’s auditorium.
It was A. J. Drinkwater, Jr., Clifford Vowels, and E. L. Brown, Jr. who lead the effort to bring the prisoners to the area to finish the cotton harvest. To do so, they had to deposit $700 against future wages and $2,000 in cash to defray building a bathhouse, pay for fencing, light poles and other equipment needed to secure the camp located on the edge of town.
As a full-time manger, J. W. Barron was hired of the 320 prisoners. Some went to farms in Mississippi County with others going to Scott County farms. The POW’s were not paid an hourly wage, instead were paid $2 per hundred pounds for the cotton picked. Prisoners were allotted to farmers in groups of ten and posted a deposit each day equal to a day picking and provide all equipment needed and furnished transportation to and from the prison camp.
Not understanding food from the camp came from military supplies many locals blamed the POW’s for the food shortage in the area. This was a common complaint in most of the Southeast Missouri communities hosting a prison camp. The only materials purchased on the local economies were construction items and fresh food items like bread, mild, and ice. Guards and prisoners did without the scare item just as the towns’ people.
In Kennett, the Dunklin County Farm Labor Board led by Earl Jones, Kimble Swindle, and Fred Chailland to set up a POW camp. On August 17, 1943, a Dunklin Democrat article announce a minimum of 300 prisoners were coming to help harvest 80,000 bales of cotton.
Grover Wicker, farm manager for the Cotton Exchange Bank was in charge of the Kennett camp. This camp was at the edge of town at the east end of Second Street where in now runs into Chance. Farm land was beyond. It was one of the smaller camps and was short lived.
Four of the prisoners decided to go to Chicago to be with relatives. Instead of heading north, in their confusion, they went south. Staying off the highway, they went through the lowland and were soon wet and cold. Giving up they approached a house near Rives, Missouri, about ten miles from camp and gave up. The family feed them and notified the sheriff.
Dunklin Countians had a mixed reaction towards the prisoners. Some blamed them for the food shortage. Others felt empathy for the POW’s realizing they were caught in a situation beyond their control.
New Madrid farmers, like most Bootheel cotton growers, welcomed the labor of the POW’s. New Madrid County Extension service and the New Madrid County Farm Labor Association lead by growers, Arline Avery and Albert Beis sponsored a camp at Marston. Labor was needed badly as 80 percent of the cotton crop was still in the field.
Coming to the Marston area were enlisted Germans from the base camp at Clarinda, Iowa with control quickly being shifted to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
Fifty POW’s in the first group to arrive while the new camp was being prepared in late September and early October of 1944. They bunked in the Marston high school gym was erecting fences, latrines, and putting wooden floors under sturdy square tents.
Four-hundred followed and resided in t grove of trees on the Charles Pikey farm on Highway 61 near Conrad, some 11 miles south of New Madrid. During the rest of October, they picked about 599,000 pounds of cotton. After the cotton was harvested, to help control boll weevils the POW’s chopped cotton stakes and then laboring in the soybean-oil meal near Portageville.
Accusation arose claiming the prisoners were living the high life and were being coddled. Rumors said the prisoners were free to go and come as they pleased without proper supervision. Thus in March of1945, army officials, led by Colonel Andrew Duvall the commander of the main cam at Fort Leonard Wood led a troupe of newsmen on a tour of the camp.
The news people were convinced the army was proving proper security and like the rest of the nation, they too were affected by the food shortage.
Included among the prisoners was former Afrika Korps trooper who proved to be trouble makers. Because of their belief in the superiority, thy caused some friction in the camp, both with the farmers and the more recently captured German prisoners who did not know how poorly the war was going for Germany.
The POW program was coming to an end, during the early spring of 1946 the process of disbanding the Marston Camp go started. Only 70 prisoners of the 425 prisoners were left by February of 1946. By the end of the month, all POW’s were gone and the camp closed.