Note: The following is one of a series of articles looking at events in the history of Bulloch County.
Soon after the beginning of WWI, the U.S. War Department had measures to place to put captured German prisoners of war to work. The first group of 794 German sailors were sent to Forts McPherson and Oglethorpe in Georgia.
However, during WWII, in the summer and fall of 1943, German and Italian prisoners of war were sent to Bulloch County to help harvest the crops. The POWs actually volunteered for this duty.
Leisa Vaughn’s master’s thesis, entitled “The German Hun in the Sun: German Prisoners of War in Georgia,” was completed at Georgia Southern University (2014.)
The majority of these WWII prisoners of war were sent to the U.S. Army’s 4th, 7th and 8th Service Commands. In September 1943, there were 163,706 German POWs in the U.S.
By mid-1945, there were a total of 490 base and branch POW camps in the U.S., with 40 permanent and temporary camps scattered about Georgia. According to the Bulloch Times, a Statesboro camp was erected in 1944.
Several groups of these laborers, between the ages of 18 and 38 years of age, were being used in various locations throughout Bulloch County under the supervision of the military authorities.
The Georgia Agricultural Extension Service reported there was a desperate need for city folk to help harvest the fall crops, as the men who would normally harvest them were engaged in battle half a world away.
The Army’s 4th Service Command in Atlanta reported that farmers needed the help from the prisoners of war. These soldiers turned laborers were not the monsters the American press had made them out to be.
Headquarters reported that these prisoners were mostly being used to harvest peanuts. The Italian prisoners were more adept at picking the peanuts, as they had performed similar agricultural labor back at home.
Lt. Richard E. Smith, an agricultural agent in civilian life, arranged the prisoners’ transport to areas in Bulloch County needing harvest help. Some of the prisoners wanted to carry some of the seeds back home.
Efforts were made to ensure that the prisoners didn’t work during the hottest part of the day. Late afternoon games of volleyball and basketball were arranged.
In fact, the War Department actually arranged to provide the German-language newspaper, “Neue Volkszeitung,” which many of those who could read German thought was overly critical of the government’s policies.
Headquarters stated that the prisoner labor was only being used where the entire crop is in danger and time is of the essence.
John T. Allen was the then local farm labor assistant. He reported there would be 150 prisoner laborers available to work in Bulloch. They would pick and stack peanuts, pull corn, pick pecans, cut cane and perform other work.
They must, he said, be paid the prevailing hourly wage, as if they were regular farm laborers. When Allen showed up to assign the POWs, there were more than 50 growers jostling for a place in line.
They all wanted some of the laborers. Every one of the laborers had been booked from early August all the way through the end of September by 10:30 in the morning. Another 30 prisoners were coming, Allen said.
Farmer Sam Neville of Register employed nine prisoners of war on his land to help with the harvest.
Five of those prisoners wrote to Neville after their return to Germany. Bernhard Erbelding, a prisoner that worked for Neville harvesting peanuts, wrote to the farmer in February 1947.
From a collection of letters in the 1944-1947 Sam Neville letter collection, in the Special Collections at the Georgia Southern University Museum are shared several messages.
“Last—not least—I have the occasion to accomplish my promise and to write you a letter. I am convinced that you like to remember one of your old prisoners of war and I hope (I) made you a little pleasure by writing.”
Another former prisoner of war, Werner Götze, wrote to Neville, “I like to think of you and the good time I had when I had the privilege to stay with you and therefore, I thank you very much.”
These letters express gratitude and friendship. All of the letters also send regards to both Neville’s wife and his two little children, indicating at least some interaction with the family.
Bernhard also shared memories of Mrs. Neville in his letters to her husband, “I remember very well the delicate fishes that Mrs. Neville roast for us at the open fire.”
Roger Allen is a local lover of history who provides a brief look each week at the area's past. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.