ONAWA, Iowa -- Fall-crispened vegetation now covers the spot.

A place nearly one-third the circumference of the planet away became the home to hundreds of German prisoners of war during World War II, putting the prisoners in a camp near Onawans who had sent some of their young men over to fight the war in Europe and elsewhere.

A POW camp was established in Algona, Iowa, (dubbed "Hub of the Empire") from 1944 to 1946. The Algona camp had 34 branch camps in four states, including Yankton, S.D., Storm Lake, Iowa, and Onawa. After fulfilling the need, the camps were closed up 60 years ago.

"To the citizens of Onawa, it brought the war to their front door," said Fred Wonder, 73, former editor of The Onawa Democrat newspaper.

With six decades passing since the war ended and the Onawa camp closure, most of the people with a connection to the camp have passed on. For most Onawans, Mike Tuohey, 67, said, "you might as well tell them stories about the Civil War. A lot of that sense of history is not really prevalent throughout town anymore."

Onawa resident Louise Moore, 93, (Touhey's aunt) said she never got to see any prisoners, since visiting the premises wasn't allowed. "We never had no trouble, no nothing," she said. "You'd never know they were down there, if you didn't try to get in -- they wouldn't let you in."

Not overly curious to see the prisoners, Moore was more anxious what was going on with her brother serving in Europe. Clarence Harding had ironically been held prisoner for roughly one year by Germans before being released by English troops prior to Victory in Europe Day.

When Harding found out about the camp, his dislike for the Germans honed through long marches and poor conditions, "he said they should have pushed them out in the river, let them drown," Moore recounted. "He couldn't understand people being so good to them, because he wasn't treated that way."

Moore spoke about her husband, Carl "Red" Moore, overseeing camp prisoners in his position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She said the Onawa prisoners were well-behaved. "They told my husband, 'We don't want to fight you,'" Moore said.

Added Tuohey, "From the stories I heard, they were really content to be where the were."

Wonder had a different recollection, saying, "at one time there was a little riot, they burned a building down."

Wonder said the arrival of the prisoners of war was big news for an impressionable kid. "The fascination was, on a daily basis, we had troop trains going through... They unloaded those prisoners down by my house," Wonder said. "I was 10. Some of them had their (military) uniforms on, but most had prisoner of war uniforms. When they brought the prisoners, we'd yell at them, talk at them, and they'd talk back (in German).

Recalled Moore, "They asked (Americans at the camp) to bring them like cigarettes, tobacco or anything they could work with their hands. They seemed to want to make something, and they were beautiful at it. The thing they made for Red, I never did know what it was." The Moores received what some have tabbed as a shelf or book rack.

England began taking German prisoners of war in 1941, but unable to hold them all, turned to the U.S. to handle some. By the end of the war, the America became home to 425,000 POWs from Germany, Italy, Japan and other Axis nations.

The location of the camp -- about one mile north of the Onawa/Decatur, Neb., bridge -- on the very edge of the Missouri River can't be reached by road, only scanned from a distance at the border of the government-owned land.

Sioux Cityan Ray Jauron, 83, worked for the U.S. Engineering Department on the river, putting him repeatedly alongside about 10 POW workers who helped out. About two years ago, he walked off the road and onto the land, finding only a few corner posts as the sole reminder of the camp.

The prisoners did a lot of river rechannelization work for the Corps. When the rechannelization was complete, the public was offered opportunities at the Quonset huts that made up the camp. A lot of the huts were never claimed, but Tuohey and Moore pointed to a home in southern Onawa that was a former barrack -- first home to a GI returning from war -- while another is now a midtown city shed at Ninth and Ruby streets.

Walking around the shed, Moore said, "Think how many years it's set here, good gosh." Another barrack was used for the Girl Scout camp at Blue Lake.

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When the camp opened in summer 1945, the Onawa Democrat paper reported there were 80 to 100 prisoners. Information posted at the Monona County Veteran's Memorial Museum in Onawa summarizes that the camp was operated from July 15, 1945, to Jan. 22, 1946. Over the six months, 4,000 German and a few Italian prisoners passed through.

Of those prisoners, 193 worked for the Corps on flood control, and the museum exhibit notes that "at no time were civilians permitted to enter these enclosures and they were warned not to communicate, consort of give aid or comfort to the POW's."

Jauron's wife, Virginia, is an Onawa native, and recalled her father's far pasture edge adjoined the camp. "The prisoners would yell and holler and whistle at me, but I didn't pay much attention to them. I was only a teenager, and I suppose they probably thought they could scare me, but they didn't scare me," Virginia Jauron said. "We didn't think about it. I don't even remember my folks saying anything like, 'Let's keep the doors locked.'"

Ray Jauron said the Italians wouldn't do much work, but the Germans -- primarily captured from the African Theater of the war -- were valued for their concerted labor. "They were doggone good workers, I'll tell you that," he said.

The German POWs, Jauron said, were all draftees, not volunteers, so likely didn't embrace the aims of Hitler. He recalled a mild-mannered professor among the prisoners. Jauron once took an injured German into Onawa to be treated by a doctor.

He recalled the camp wasn't overly secure, with strands of barbed wire fairly wide so a prisoner could have slipped out, if so inclined. "Anybody could have climbed over it or under it," Jauron said.

But that wasn't the case, Jauron said, since the prisoners were "no threat," telling him they weren't going to try escaping.

From a German with the best English known as Karl, Jauron heard, "We ain't going nowhere. He says, 'It's a 1,000 miles to the coast, and its 2,000 miles across the water.'"

Bret Hayworth may be reached at (712) 293.4203 or brethayworth@siouxcityjournal.com

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