Many of us have older relatives, perhaps a grandfather, a dad, or a great uncle who fought overseas during WWII, but many of us are unaware that at the time the US was housing over 425,000 enemy POWs (mostly Germans, but also Italians and a few Japanese) in over 500 camps spread out over 46 states. The majority of prisoners were housed in the South in order to conserve fuel in the winter, and over 2000 of them were housed right here in Acadiana. While the major camps in Louisiana included those at Fort Polk, Ruston, and Livingston, there were smaller area camps in places like Youngsville, St. Martinsville, Rayne, Kaplan, Geuydan, Eunice, Franklin, Melville, and Thibodeaux. A temporary labor program was created to help replace the lost labor from those who were fighting overseas, and many area farmers took advantage of that program.
In Kaplan, the camp was located on the north side of town and was completed by October of 1944. It was bordered on the east by Highway 35, on the south by Bert St., on the west by Dick St., and on the north by an AVRI canal. Each area camp had a watchtower on each corner and a high fence with barbed-wire surrounding the entire complex. Every morning the POWs would be marched to a main street meeting point where they could be claimed by area farmers or anyone, for that matter, who needed extra labor. Women were told not to be around at this time. In Kaplan, many prisoners were chosen to work in the fields, while others were put on rice trucks to work at the mills or in warehouses.
There were a few humorous stories that surfaced from the POWs being housed in Acadiana. In one, a certain manager of a rice mill named Cliff was in charge of transporting the prisoners to and from the mill each day. One day, Cliff had to leave early and forgot to make arrangements to return the prisoners. At the end of the day, the workers went home, and a bookkeeper named Lillian finally realized that she was the last one with the prisoners. She knew she had to bring them back, so she attempted to communicate for them to get onto the back of the truck the best she could, and she drove them across town to the camp. When she entered the gates, the prisoners seemed to be in a rush to get off the truck. Suddenly, several guards drew their weapons, pointing them right at Lillian, continually shouting orders for her to leave immediately. She tried to explain what had happened with the mix-up at the mill, but guards kept shouting loud, angry commands to get out of the camp all the while pointing several rifles at her. She finally managed to get the truck into gear and leave the compound. Lillian said she never had a chance to explain what had happened; she commented that the guards were much more difficult to handle than the prisoners.
According to one story in The Daily Advertiser which quoted Bayou Stalags by Schott & Foley, there were also a few wild rumors going around, like the POWs in Franklin who managed to slip out the camp for a few hours in order to have romantic meetings with the gals in town, or of grateful farmers who would treat the prisoners to steak dinners at a St. Martinsville nightclub even though this was strictly against the rules. Supposedly, the conditions were so relaxed in Gueydan that some of the guards put one of the POWs on guard duty with a machine gun in a watchtower so that they could go enjoy the Christmas party.
Generally speaking, the POWs were considered to be well mannered and polite. This was possible only after the hard-core Nazis (who made up about a fifth the Germans) were segregated from the rest of the German soldiers and were no longer able to intimidate them not to comply with the Americans. The average German soldier did not believe in Hitler or his war, and many of them were from neighboring countries being forced to fight for Germany. Most of them were peace loving individuals, and some of them were given certain privileges: those who were Catholic, for example, were allowed to worship. Many of the farmers and their families grew close with the POWs and kept in contact through correspondence, exchanging gifts, etc. Some have even returned for visits with their families for a reunion years after the war. There are also accounts of prisoners who decided to stay in this area after the war, or for some who sent for loved ones to settle here with them. There is a Mr. Bornmann who remained in Kaplan after the war who eventually married Elizabeth Rome from Kaplan. They have a son named Robert James.