Camp Aliceville artifacts and stories remain at Aliceville Museum
Published in Southern Living Magazine
ALICEVILLE — Between the high school football stadium here and an industrial park rests a stone chimney surrounded by weeds. 59 years ago, during World War II, the chimney belonged to an enlisted men’s club in a camp for German prisoners of war.
At the height of America’s involvement in the war, the camp held more than 6,000 prisoners. It employed more than 1,000 guards and civilians.
The story of the Aliceville Prisoner of War Camp goes back to when Allied forces defeated the German AfricaKorps in 1943. There were too many prisoners to be confined in Great Britain. As a result, German prisoners were shipped to the United States and dispersed to camps. Twenty-five such camps were built in Alabama, with the largest being the one in Aliceville. Civilians, some of which were Aliceville residents worked in the quartermaster’s shop, the camp hospital and the mess halls.
Margie Colvin remembers the promise of so much excitement in the small town. “We thought after the war this was going to be a boom town,” she said. “It was just swarming with soldiers.”
Colvin quit her job at the local bank and went to work at the hospital as the war wound down. When civilians were laid off from the camp, she would temporarily fill in for their positions. Eight German doctors worked in the hospital along with 10 American physicians, she said, but the civilian employees kept their distance to avoid the perception of “fraternizing with the enemy.” Colvin and her girlfriends did fraternize with the American soldiers, as they gathered in the enlisted men’s club. It had a bar, even though Pickens County was dry, and also a dance floor, sofas and a screened-in porch. One man she dated gave her a portrait of herself that a prisoner had drawn from a picture. She also had a wooden bowl that a prisoner carved. It featured a scene of the camp. Prisoners would trade such items for cigarettes, Colvin said.
After the war, when the U.S. Army no longer needed the camp, the government broke it into pieces and sold the land to the city and to private citizens. Some of the barracks survived for years, but by the 1980s all that remained were a stone chimney and two gateposts. Though the structures were gone, memories of the camp lingered in the minds of many residents and former soldiers and prisoners. Museum staff members accepted artifacts from local residents who hung on to such things as old uniforms, weapons, newsletters and art. But they also know that a lot of rare World War II objects are not cared for properly or just thrown away.
Today the history of the camp survives in documented memories of people who got caught in a terrible war and in the country’s largest collection of German Prisoner of War Camp objects. People associated with the museum know the building is more than the sum of the items on display. “The objects mean so much more when you know the story behind them,” said Mary Bess Paluzzi, former executive director and museum board member. The first prisoners arrived by train at 4 p.m. on June 2, 1943. Local authorities told the citizens to stay indoors, but many disobeyed and went to the Frisco Railroad depot to see the Germans. Robert Hugh Kirksey, father of Museum Director Ann Kirksey, and an Aliceville native was on leave from the U.S. Army at the time. He remembers that his father, the chairman of the local Red Cross, asked if he wanted to go watch the prisoners unload. Kirksey, who was about to be shipped to basic training and wanted to know what the enemy looked like, enthusiastically said yes. About 300 bedraggled prisoners stepped off the train and lined up under the watch of armed U.S. soldiers. Some of the Germans appeared to be arrogant; some were tired, but all marched to the camp with their chins up, Kirksey said.
A mortar shell would later wound Kirksey while he was trying to take a pillbox near the town of Geilenkirchen, Germany. His wounds were severe enough to warrant sending him home. While recuperating, he was invited to the POW camp’s officers’ club. He remembers two things vividly about the evening: He ate his first raw oyster, and a German prisoner served it to him. He also observed that the prisoners were treated well and that there was a good relationship between the prisoners and the guards.
The U.S. military followed the Geneva Convention to the letter and inspected camps for violations on a regular basis. U.S. authorities hoped the Germans would treat American prisoners with equal respect. Nevertheless, this kind treatment created resentment in Aliceville, as prisoners had fresh meat and vegetables to eat while civilians outside the camp’s fences dealt with strict rationing. The prisoners also had the freedom to play soccer and form an orchestra with borrowed instruments.
The prisoners kept up with news of the war by radio and maintained a map of Europe that was covered with pins representing the various armed forces. As the war went on, there were fewer and fewer German pins. Meanwhile, prisoners began arriving in the United States at a rate of 10,000 per week. By the spring of 1945, when there was only one German pin left on the prisoners’ map, there were 450,000 enemy soldiers imprisoned in this country. The war was soon over.
In 1989, Aliceville held a reunion for the POWs who had been imprisoned at the local camp. Organizers dubbed the event “The Friendship Reunion” and displayed artifacts that Aliceville residents had saved. Kirksey remembers the reunion as being a great experience. “The few local people who were still bitter toward the Germans had that bitterness tempered by that experience,” he said. The reunion was such a success that another was held in 1993, the 50th anniversary of the prisoners’ arrival. The organizers assembled the relics and realized that the items should be kept in one place—a museum that could preserve them and attract tourists. They approached Meridian Coca-Cola Bottling Co., which owned two buildings downtown on Broad Street. Would the company allow the town to convert the structures into a museum? The company agreed, and the Aliceville Museum was incorporated in 1993 as a non-profit organization. Two local banks lent money for renovation, and the museum opened its doors in March 1995. The reception to the museum was mixed. “Some were excited, some didn’t understand why we were doing this for the Germans,” Kirksey said. As a way of honoring American soldiers, the museum also displays items kept by Pickens County World War II veterans. An ad was placed in the town’s Shopper’s Guide newspaper that had 1940s-era military pictures of Aliceville veterans. “Can you identify this veteran?” the ad asked. It got the town’s attention and helped show that the museum was meant to honor all who had served during the war.
With effort and perseverance from Aliceville Tuesday Study Club members, a second collection began to take shape. Today World War II uniforms, weapons, documents, and photographs are displayed and preserved in the U.S. Military Veterans Room. The collection grew to include rare artifacts from World War I. We’re interested in adding German military artifacts to the camp Aliceville Collection, “said Kirksey. “Lots of historic artifacts from World War II get misplaced or thrown away. The museum board of directors is very open to additional donations that relate to World War II. Volunteer J.T. Junkins served as board chairman for eight years before retiring in 2005. He said he doesn’t believe people outside the museum world understand the importance of preserving World War II items. He knows the museum needs financial support from state, federal and private sources to maintain the collections and continued growth.
In 1994, a group of Aliceville residents returned the visit and traveled to Germany to visit former POWs and their families. Visitors to the museum can see video footage from that visit, along with accounts of local people who vividly remember the camp.