Jason Wetzel will be spending all day Feb. 24 at the 6th Cavalry Museum listening to any stories local citizens may have about POWs that were housed at Fort Oglethorpe during World War II.
"I’m looking for anything anyone has – old photographs, letters, newspaper articles, family memories, anything related to the POWs who lived here," says Wetzel.
There were over 12,000 German and Italian POWs in our state during WWII, Wetzel says. "It’s an unfamiliar story to many Georgians and, in fact, to most Americans." A retired Army historian now living in Dahlonega, Wetzel and fellow Army historian Dr. Kathryn Coker are writing a book on the subject.
Wetzel says that during the Second World War Georgia had five POW base camps and 39 branch camps that extended into neighboring states.
The camp located in what is now the city of Fort Oglethorpe, says Wetzel, was a branch camp and housed 300 German POWs for 21 months during the years of 1944 and 1945.
Anyone who has documents, photographs, letters, newspaper articles, family memories or any other information related to WWII POWs in Fort Oglethorpe can meet with Jason Wetzel on Feb. 24 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the 6th Calvary Museum, 6 Barnhardt Circle, Fort Oglethorpe. They can also contact Wetzel or Dr. Kathryn Coker by email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.
Wetzel says the POWs often worked for local farmers and merchants. "There was a severe labor shortage in the U.S. due to the war. If not for the POWs, there would have been a lot of crops lost in the fields and lumber mills would have sat unmanned."
"The camps had a thriving culture," says Wetzel. "They often grew their own food, they ran classes in everything from art to journalism, engineering and languages. They had sports teams and bands and put on plays. They were allowed to keep whatever they earned working in the community and often paid children to run errands for them to buy candy and Cokes."
Wetzel says that nationwide, WWII POW camps housed 425,000 men. "We started taking them in 1943 when England was becoming overwhelmed and couldn’t handle so many prisoners."
After the war, says Wetzel, when POWs were returned to their homelands, many chose to come back to the U.S. "They were young when they came here – most in their late teens and early twenties. They were treated well. They ate better and were safer here than they would have been if captured overseas and sent to a foreign POW camp where food was scarce and death rates high. The U.S. came to feel like home to them."