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A historic harvest

Prisoners from WWII employed at Olivia seed company

Italian POWs with American foreman, George Taylor in the middle. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Steinbeisser

Italian POWs with American foreman, George Taylor in the middle. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Steinbeisser

Some of the Italian, German and Japanese prisoners (called Axis) who were captured by the allies during World War II found themselves eventually harvesting seed corn for Rogers Bros. Seed Company in Olivia, and amazingly, the POWs got paid to do the work.

In America’s backyards and farm fields and even dining rooms is where many enemy prisoners landed nearly 70 years ago. As World War II raged, allies, such as Great Britain, were running short of prison space to house POWs. From 1942 through 1945, more than 400,000 Axis prisoners were shipped to the United States and detained in camps in rural areas across the country. Some 500 POW facilities were built, mainly in the South and Southwest but also in the Great Plains and Midwest.

At the same time that the prison camps were filling up, farms and factories across America were struggling with acute labor shortages. The United States faced a dilemma. According to Geneva Convention protocols, POWs could be forced to work only if they were paid, but authorities were afraid of mass escapes that would endanger the American people. Eventually, they relented and put tens of thousands of enemy prisoners to work, assigning them to canneries and mills, to farms to harvest wheat or pick asparagus, and just about any other place they were needed and could work with minimum security.

Olivia was the second of 21 communities in Minnesota to set up a prison camp. The first camp was at Princeton. The other 19 camps were located in Ada, Bena, Bird Island, Crookston, Deer River, Fairmont, Faribault, Grand Rapids, Hollandale, Howard Lake, Montgomery, Moorhead, New Ulm, Ortonville, Owatonna, Remer, Saint Charles, Warren and Wells.

The prison camp in Olivia opened around Monday, Sept. 6, 1943 (Labor Day) just days before the Italians surrendered on Sept. 8, 1943. The camp was located on the western side of Olivia at the old tile factory grounds and Roger Bros. Seed Company factory. It was lighted and guarded 24 hours each day. The 100 Italian prisoners and 35 army guards lived in tents and had their own mess hall. A recreation room was made available in the basement of the local armory. The army men and their prisoners arrived in Olivia on a Sunday afternoon by special train from Camp Clark, Nevada, Mo. After unloading here, the train proceeded to Princeton where the same number of prisoners and guards were released. At the time these were the only two camps in the entire state.

It was in August of 1943 when Roger Bros. Seed Company applied to the War department for 100 Italian POWs to help harvest and process seed corn. There was a labor shortage at the time, and workers were needed to not only help farmers but also were employed in northern Minnesota to help with the forest industry.

The prisoners worked 10 hours each day until the harvest was completed which lasted about six weeks. They were paid fifty cents per hour, although the prisoners were paid only eighty cents per day by the government. The balance was used to pay for transportation, food and expenses at the camp.

The local priest, Fr. Henry Pomije, visited the men at their camp shortly after their arrival. Once Fr. Pomije referred to their native country and relatives. “tears sprang to the eyes of the prisoners,” as reported by the Olivia Times Journal.

Rogers Bros Seed Company, from Indiana, bought out Renco Seed Company and was very satisfied with the POWs’ work. “They did a good job of picking, and they were fast in their work. They all seemed to enjoy their work,” according to George Sawin, local company manager.

According to the Olivia Times-Journal, which quoted the army captain, “They are an orderly and happy group of Italians. They have their own leaders who are held responsible for their organization. They do their own cooking, which is supervised by an Army mess sergeant.” The group averages 21 years in age and only a few can speak English. Many of the prisoners were talented musicians.

Among the 100 Italian prisoners at the camp, there are a number of talented artists and musicians. When they were picking seed corn for the Rogers Bros. Seed Co., they could be heard singing Italian songs.

The Italian POWs at Olivia in the fall of 1943 were productive, picking 1,500 acres of corn by hand, but they had time to enjoy soccer and volleyball at their compound according to a book written by Dean B. Simmons titled Swords into Plowshares.

Their job was done by late October, and they left as they had come, on a special train, bound for Camp Clark in Nevada, Mo. Following their departure, the local paper reported that “during their stay here they gave to the community a wee bit of Italian life and coloring and they left with our people a favorable impression as to their human quality and characteristics.” According to Renville County’s extension service, Olivia’s use of POWs in 1943 was praised as having “worked out rather successfully,” an experience that “should be kept in mind for future programs.”

Visitors were not permitted in the camp, and civilians were not permitted to come in close contact with the prisoners. Curtis Zumwinkle, who lived near the Olivia camp when he was about 7 years old, said: “Our parents told us we were not allowed to go near the prison camp.”

A year later Rogers Bros. Seed Co. had another 100 prisoners hired to pick hybrid seed corn, but this time it was German prisoners. Things were a little bit different this time. The previous year, the seed company employed 100 Italian war prisoners, and the group was housed in army tents in Olivia. The army issued new regulations in 1944 regarding housing. The local seed company found it impossible to meet the regulations in Olivia so buildings at the Renville County fairgrounds in Bird Island were used to house the group. They were housed in a huge dance hall and then they put up a stockade around it. They had to wait until the county fair was over before they could take over and house the prisoners. The POWs were transported daily by truck from Bird Island to the corn fields near Olivia.

By 1945 the communities had adjusted to the prisoners and, above all, acknowledged their economic value. As prisoners completed contract work, the camps were gradually closed. The last prisoners of war left Minnesota in late December 1945. Minnesota experienced few problems with the prisoners.

Fr. Pomije spoke to the Italian POWs in their native language, and said: “We salute you not as enemies, but as friends; not as prisoners, but as your protectors; not as jailed, but as the favored.”

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