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Whitewater's German POW camp

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Whitewater's German POW camp Whitewater's German POW camp
ALTURA, Minn. (KTTC) -- If you took a hike or had a picnic out at Whitewater State Park this fall, you may have been enjoying the very views that greeted German Prisoners of War during World War II.

"They had a camp band, they did plays, they did an incredible amount of stuff," said
Whitewater Interpretive Naturalist, Jeremy Darst

Jeremy is sharing stories of a life long ago in a place far from home. Stories perhaps you've never heard.

"This is getting to be one of those lost little nuggets of history," said Darst.

On Mother's Day 1953, a tornado swept through what is now the south picnic area of Whitewater State Park. It destroyed more than a dozen buildings of what started as a CCC camp, and later served as a German POW camp in the summers of 1944 and 1945. Three-hundred-five Germans captured in places like North Africa and Italy were brought here. Ernst Kohleick was one of them. He returned to Whitewater in 1974 to share his memories with his family. The DNR recorded them on tape.

Ernst said in the recording, "I can remember the time I spent in this state park. We had to work at Plainview in the cannery. I enjoyed very much the landscape surrounding us. The trees, the rocks. It was similar to Germany."

"The bluff was burned in their memories. Both gentlemen we know that came back to Whitewater, it brought back everything to them. They woke up looking at this beautiful piece of Southeast Minnesota landscape," said Darst.

Today, if you look, there are clues as to what life was like here for these men.

Jeremy takes us to the water. "This is the life blood artery of the camp. The materials coming in and prisoners leaving came in through this road that doesn't exist anymore. They'd either pick them up on a bus and take them off to the cannery or if they we're going to a farm, a farmer would say to the labor board, I need 15 prisoners today and he
would show up with a tractor and they'd take them along and back to the farm where they'd work for the day," he said.

Jim Daley grew up on a farm near Lewiston. He can remember working alongside the POWs as they picked potatoes. Daley said, "As the POWs traveled from the camp to the farm, they would look at certain farms along the way and they would say 'When Hitler wins the war, that's going to be my farm.' For a ten-year-old to hear that! That was unreal!"

Jeremy continues our tour. "This is the one remnant that is easy to find when people come here and want to find where the old camp used to be. There is a really cool cistern up on the hillside. It was used to provide the water for the big shower building that everyone would clean up at. "

Mother Nature wiped out so much of what was here in the tornado. But almost 50 years later, she used her fury to bring a bit of it back.

Jeremy showed us another spot of interest. "In 2007, we had a flood come through here and this is one of the barracks that was missing. We have more here than we thought we did. This is one of the foundations that were here," he said.

And Jeremy isn't done looking for new pieces to this 70-year-old puzzle.

"It obscures a lot of things. Over time, its kind of reclaimed. But if you go out and you explore, there's a lot to be found out in those woods and a lot of stories yet to be told," he said.
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