Saturday, February 19, 2022

Q&A with Gary Slaughter




Gary Slaughter is the author, with Joanne Fletcher Slaughter, of the new book WWII POWs in America and Abroad. His other books include the memoir Sea Stories, about his service in the Navy. 


Q: You note that your interest in World War II POWs in the United States came from the fact that your hometown of Owosso, Michigan, housed a POW camp. Can you say more about the impact that had on you?


A: The response of Owosso citizens, including me, to German POWs changed dramatically over a short period of time.  


We had every right to feel angry, even betrayed, by our government that located America’s mortal enemies in our town. No Owosso citizen relished having those dreaded Nazis in our midst.


Eventually, farmers and local businessmen concluded that, rather than leave crops unharvested in fields or production lines sitting idle on off-shifts, they would accept the alternative of inexpensive and reliable POW labor.


Then Owosso people really got to know the POWs who worked on the farms where they lived with farm families. This was also true of POWs employed in Owosso’s factories, producing food stuffs, clothing, and tools for commerce and agriculture. Factory owners were excited to have a talented corps of hard-working POWs meet or exceed high productions goals driven by the needs of War.


We Owosso residents experienced mixed emotions regarding the POWs. This was not what we had expected from the Nazis. They were not the monsters we were taught to hate by the newsreels, newspapers, and radio. Frankly, I liked what I saw but felt guilty. The more I observed the POWs, the more confused I became.


My best friend, Billy Curtis, and I were in the same elementary-school class that was located a few blocks to the south of our local canning factory. Even before the arrival of POWs, Billy and I took a shortcut to school that led across the canning factory parking lot. There the POWs worked unloading trucks and on the production lines with American women, processing and then canning freshly harvested fruits and vegetable.  


As we cut through the parking lot, we were greeted by a chorus of greetings from the young German POWs. Naturally, Billy and I were very flattered by this unexpected attention. Ironically, we all discovered that the POWs were quite ordinary and normal. They laughed and poked fun at each other. They were cheerful and even friendly. Most were just young men, many only teenagers. 


However, we could not forget that these men were the enemy - Nazi soldiers! The POWs were guarded by Army MPs with .45 automatics on their belts and Tommy guns in the crook of their arms. Despite our increasing familiarity with our POW neighbors, we never lost sight of the fact that this was serious business, and these were serious times.


Q: How were German POWs treated in the United States?


A: The American military was accused of coddling the German POWs, but the War Department cited many benefits: Our generous treatment of POWs would encourage more German soldiers to surrender, shortening the war. This treatment would result in docile POWs, requiring fewer guards. Then more American soldiers could be sent to the front lines.


According to the Geneva Convention, the U.S. could compel POW enlisted men and non-commissioned officers to work, if the work was not “demeaning, dangerous or defense-related.” Like Americans, prisoners worked eight hours a day and six days a week. These jobs included farming, forestry, and food processing. 


Moreover, POWs were paid the prevailing labor rate, averaging 52 cents an hour or about $4 a day. The POW’s share was 90 cents, and the rest ($3.10) paid for the prisoners’ housing and to finance the War effort. The POW’s 90-cent daily wage was about equal to the pay of a U.S. Army private.  


Of a POW’s wage, 45 cents was deposited in a savings account that the POW took home with him after his repatriation. The other 45 cents were paid in the form of canteen coupons. 


Studies showed great benefits of providing POWs with a variety of diversions to occupy their time and minds. Sports was definitely the most popular pastime. Soccer, called football by the Germans, was universally enjoyed. The YMCA donated the balls and other sports equipment, as well as other recreational items, including books, musical instruments, phonograph records, games, and hobby materials. 


Plays and theatrical productions were the second most popular pastime. Every camp had a makeshift theater where POWs performed uproariously funny skits, as well as highly sophisticated three-act plays with props and orchestration. POWs attended courses to earn college credits accepted by 19 universities in Germany and Austria. These courses were taught by local American college professors. 


Other popular activities were offered. Choral groups and orchestras were organized. Church services were provided on Sundays by the local churches, sometimes in German. Tracking down distant relatives in America became a major activity for many German POWs. Pets, including cats, dogs, monkeys, and canaries, were popular.


In some camps, POWs published their own newspapers. And POWs enjoyed English-language movies, especially propaganda films like Watch on the Rhine. Periodically, the projector was turned off so a translator could explain what was happening.


German POWs in America were treated far better here in our country than they had ever experienced in the German armed forces. In a survey sent to each repatriated POW, three quarters of them expressed appreciation and thanks to their American captors or their hosts. 


Q: How did you research this book? 


A: As I mentioned, my interest in POWs began as a young boy, and in the early 2000s I began to write about German POWs on the American home front.


In 2004, after the publication of my first novel, Cottonwood Summer, readers and attendees at my Behind the Book talks expressed interest in learning more about POWs. So, I set out to study that topic, resulting in a series of five Cottonwood novels.


The books are set in the last five seasons of the War, detailing life on the home front, as seen through the eyes of two 9-year old boys. Drawing on my early memory of POWs, each book contains POW storylines. 


The stories are narrated by Jase Addison, based on myself in Riverton, Michigan, a fictionalized version of Owosso. My best friend and constant companion, Billy Curtis, is Danny Tucker, the main character of the five books.


The German POWs in these books are based on factual information gleaned from my study of the subject and from my actual observations and experiences with German POWs who were imprisoned in nearby Camp Owosso. 


As I researched, I quickly became aware that, in addition to the WWII camps in America, both the Allied Forces and the Axis Powers had confined their own civilians, in addition to the captured military prisoners. Immediately following the War, the Nuremberg Trials for Axis leaders provided a small measure of retributive justice for their atrocities committed against humanity. 


I am very grateful for the excellent reporting of our Allied War correspondents and for the extremely comprehensive photographical history of the War compiled by the National Archives


Q: In researching, what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: During my book talks, I was surprised to learn that many attendees were unaware that our own American citizens were imprisoned here in the United States during the War. 


After the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. War Department suspected that Japanese Americans, living here in the US, might act as saboteurs or espionage agents. 


The federal War Relocation Authority (WRA) was established. Its mission was – and I quote - 


“To take all people of Japanese descent into custody, 

surround them with troops, 

prevent them from buying land, and

return them to their former homes at the close of the War.” 


These Japanese Americans were forced to sell their property, including businesses, within two weeks. Some non-Japanese Americans seized this opportunity and offered unreasonably low sums to buy these possessions from them.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: The account of POWs in America and abroad is truly a unique and interesting element of World War II about which most Americans were - and today many still are - unaware.


Today, the World War II POW story in America and throughout the world continues being captured in numerous publications of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs, as well as visually by the viewing opportunities of this subject in movies, TV series, and documentaries. 


Through my writing during the past two decades, I am extremely gratified to have had the opportunity to share information about the subject that has held my interest for my entire life. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Between 2000 and 2012, I authored and spoke about the Cottonwood series of five historical fiction novels. Published in 2016, Sea Stories: A Memoir of a Naval Officer (1956-1967) recounted my Naval career, including my role in surfacing a Russian nuclear-armed submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis.


In 2019, my autobiography, The Journey of an Inquiring Mind: From Scholar, Naval Officer and Entrepreneur to Novelist, was published. And now, this nonfiction study of WWII POWs. So, I ask myself, what’s next? In addition to book talks, will I write more fiction or research another topic for nonfiction? I’m grateful to have that choice.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My wife, Joanne, and I have collaborated on all of my books. An English major in college, she taught English for 10 years, is a voracious reader, and produces extremely meticulous work products.


Joanne has relieved me of many author’s tasks. She studies and edits my draft manuscripts. Moreover, she works with our agent and publisher to produce these works. Then, she assists our publicist in the promotion and schedules my book events. Finally, she handles book sales and financial transactions. 


After having described all this, you might ask me, “What do you do?” Answer: “I’m free to create.”


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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