SYCAMORE – Tom Brotcke still remembers the days of sharing his church with Nazi soldiers.
Those memories do not conjure up imagery of swastikas or Hitler, but of young men who seemed harmless while they worked the summer of 1945 at Sycamore Preserve Works during part of their time in a prisoner of war camp located where UpStaging now resides.
“They would sing the hymns in German while we sang in English,” Brotcke said. “It was pretty neat.”
Brotcke was one of nearly 100 people Wednesday who attended the Sycamore History Museum’s presentation about Sycamore’s 1945 POW camp. Derrick Burress, principal at Kishwaukee Education Consortium, delivered the presentation, which was based of his thesis project from when he was a history major at Northern Illinois University.
Burress described the camp as a mutually beneficial project for the city and prisoners because it gave businesses such as Sycamore Preserve Works needed labor. The business’s usual workforce was fighting overseas, and the project provided prisoners meaningful activity in good conditions.
The camp, which operated from June until October in 1945, could house 300 prisoners, who were between 16 and 25 years old. The prisoners enjoyed the town and worked hard, accomplishing the best packing season in Sycamore Preserve Works history with 400,000 crates of corn and asparagus packaged in about five months.
While there was initial hesitation from city officials about establishing the camp, locals and guards learned to accept the prisoners. Prisoners often would ask to buy chocolate or cigarettes with their modest compensation, and locals would watch them march down the street singing as they went to a local cafe for the day’s lunch and dinner, Burress said.
Guards and prisoners were even known to go fishing or drinking after a day’s work.
“A lot of the prisoners of war come back to live in America because of their experience,” Burress said. “It’s neat to think we treated our prisoners so well they wanted to come back to live here.”
Bill Lenschow, who was at the presentation, remembered seeing the prisoners working in the field, walking to the cafe and providing plenty of excitement for the young ones in the community.
“All of us just used to get a kick out of watching them,” Lenschow said. “They were just wonderful to us as kids.”
Parents were wary of letting their children interact with the prisoners no matter how nice they seemed, but Gene Listy said that advice went in one ear and out the other.
“We used to walk or bike right up to the camp,” he said. “We were always told we couldn’t, so of course that was the first thing we tried to do.”
Burress said many of the prisoners had not been indoctrinated with the German military’s philosophy because they were all young. He said they were simply fighting for their country, but like many visitors to the United States, were eager to learn about the country when they arrived.
Even after the prisoners were released back to Germany, Burress said some wrote to Sycamore to ask for donations to rebuild their demolished country.
“Unlike a lot of other prisoner of war camps, Sycamore didn’t have one escape attempt,” Burress said.