Wisconsin's History With German POW Camps Shapes 'The Home Front' Novel
DW Hanneken grew up in Milwaukee’s Washington Heights neighborhood and as a kid, his mother once told him a story of her experience working in a German prisoner of war (POW) camp during World War II. He was confused because he knew his mother had spent the entire war living in the United States.
That’s when she explained to him that she worked at one of the 700 camps across the United States that housed over 400,000 captured German soldiers brought from the fighting in Europe.
“She said, 'No, no, no, it was an army camp right outside of Rockford called Camp Grant and, um, there were 100s of German POWs there during the war.' This just got me to thinking, ‘My goodness what a phenomenal foundation for a story’ and this was when I was a kid,” Hanneken says.
Hanneken went on to work as a copywriter and an adjunct professor in Marquette’s communications department. He recently finished his first novel, The Home Front, using the idea he had gotten from his mother’s stories.
The Home Front follows Maggie Wentworth, a wife, mother and farmer, during the last years of the war. Her abusive husband has shipped off to fight in Europe, she is trying to take care of her son and her aging father and manage the German POWs who have been assigned to work at her farm.
Most of the real German POWs were sent to rural areas because government officials were worried about having the camps close with the public. “They were very aware of the possible repercussions of having the ‘enemy’ … so close by and even on American soil, so they put a lot of them out in rural communities,” Hanneken explains.
Because so many American men had left to go fight in the war, the country was facing a labor shortage and that meant the German POWs were asked to work. Because of international law, the POWs who worked received the same pay that American soldiers received.
Hanneken says Wisconsin was an interesting home for the POWs because the state already had so many German immigrants. When prisoners were allowed to leave the camps to go to church or into town, they were usually greeted graciously.
“They were welcomed because, I think, of the influence of the German population here,” he says.
Despite the warm welcome, none of the prisoners were allowed to stay in the United States after the war came to an end in 1945.
For Hanneken, the book is meant to offer a more human look at the average German soldier, and he hopes people can find a message of tolerance inside the pages.
“This is a story about the importance of loving one another. There’s an important message about tolerance, and that is something that we need now more than ever,” he says.