Hardly anyone alive today is aware that the first U.S. troops sent to fight in WWII came from the Upper Midwest, or that the region’s 34th “Red Bull” Division served the longest uninterrupted duty in U.S. military history—about 600 days. Even fewer know that, as some 1,800 mostly Midwest soldiers serving in North Africa were captured one night in February 1943, until the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 the most U.S. POWs in Nazi-German camps came, per capita, from the same region.
“Behind Barbed Wire”, touring seven Midwest states in the spring and summer of 2008 - including Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan - explores the experiences of Midwest prisoners of war (POWs) who were imprisoned in Hitler’s Third Reich, and the human context in which their experiences took place. The St. Paul-based, non-profit educational organization TRACES created this exhibit. The exhibit, housed in a converted school bus, will reach nearly 120 schools, libraries, and historical societies along the way.
“Behind Barbed Wire” poses five primary questions:
- why did some Midwest POWs survive certain conditions or experiences, while others did not,
- what roles did art, freetime and religion play in helping those men who did survive imprisonment by the Nazi regime,
- why did some Germans or Austrians assist Midwest POWs, while others did not,
- how did the liberated POWs later come to terms with their own experiences, and
- how do countries once in armed conflict reconcile with each other: how do nations and the individuals who constitute a nation get beyond war?
As the opening panel of the exhibit reminds viewers, “The prisoner of war experience is one few men or women know directly. Being taken prisoner is, in itself, neither dishonorable nor heroic. Capture is largely an accident; often, it comes as a complete surprise and is frequently accompanied by injury. Usually, the confinement is painful; too often, it is fatal. In war, not everyone is lucky: some lose. Those taken captive are part of the unlucky ones.”
As the exhibit’s first text explains, “There were three main waves of Midwest POWs: those captured in North Africa in 1943, those pilots shot out of the sky during the air war over Europe, and those soldiers captured at the Battle of the Bulge, near the war’s end. Each wave of Midwest POWs in Nazi Germany had its own experiences. All of the men who survived them, however, left a provocative legacy for those alive today—one involving the very nature of war itself: how does armed conflict between groups of people play out, face-to-face, when the guns are lowered; how ‘should’ humans treat each other and, ultimately, live together?”