From foe to friend: Mainer recalls WWII POWs worked on potato farms
By Dawn De Busk
HARRISON — As a teenager, Hank Lunn did not save his spare change for candy sticks or gum or soda pop.
Instead, he sacrificed those little luxuries and saved up his money to buy war bonds.
“We changed from playing war to being in war. We saved our money for war stamps —– no nickels for soda pop,” Lunn said.
Hank Lunn was 13 years old when he and his family’s Sunday night dinner was interrupted with the radio broadcast that the Japanese military had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Prior to Dec. 7, 1941, Lunn — like most Americans — had learned to have a dislike for the Japanese and also the Nazis, the Germans.
“We were propagandized. We knew all about the Japs,” he said, apologizing to the audience if they were offended by that word.
The images of the Japanese depicted them with slanty eyes, buck teeth and bowl-cut hair, he said. Additionally, the cartoons of the Japanese military showed them holding up their weapons with “babies at the end of the bayonets.” Similar caricatures showed the German Nazis having speared babies with their bayonets, Lunn said. The neighboring farmer, who frequently came over to visit Lunn’s family, referred to the enemies as GD Stalin, GD Hitler, GD Axis. Those were conversations Lunn heard around the dinner table. He mimicked the adults’ sentiments, understood their hate of the enemy overseas. Hating Japan and Germany was an American attitude even before Pearl Harbor was attacked.
“So, when it came time to support the war effort, we were hot to go,” he said.
Lunn gave a presentation called “WWII Prisoners of War: From Foe to Friend” at the Harrison Village Library on June 28. More than 80 people showed up and were seated for the midweek afternoon discussion.
As the war in Europe raged on, Lunn and his best friend Mack did their part to protect American soil.
The Lunn Farm was only eight miles from Houlton Airforce Base, which was located two miles from the Canadian border. Every afternoon, the two boys climbed a tower just past the town office and watched the skies.
“We got so we were afraid every time we heard a plane. They screeched when they went by. We were so thankful when we saw it was one of ours,” Lunn said.
It was when the war was over in 1945, and 2,000 prisoners of war (POWs) were sent to Houlton Airforce Base that the wheels were set into motion that would cause local farming families to see the enemy in a different light.
Victory in Europe (VE) Day happened on May 8, 1945, when the German armies formally surrendered to the Allied troops. For some time, the WWII POWs, who had been captured in Africa and in Normandy, were sent to concentration camps in England.
“The U.S. was sending food to the English and to the POWs in England. Someone in Washington, D.C., had a good idea” to use the USS Liberty ship to transport food to England and pick up the German prisoners and bring them to back to America, Lunn said.
Concentration camps were established “all over the United States” for 425,000 POWs, he said.
After the war, there was a shortage of farmers since most young men had enlisted and were still in the military. The POWs were sent to wherever the crops were, he said.
“Two thousand of them were in Maine and eight POWs ended up working on the farm,” Lunn said.
One young man in particular, Willi Kitzing, became a friend, he said.
“Germany took kids out of school. Some of these men were 16 or 17 years old. They said, ‘Just as soon as we could, we surrendered. Russians were coming over the border and we’d rather be captured by the Americans.”
“The number of POWs assigned to a farm was based on acreage. When they were not digging potatoes, the men sawed wood. That is what they did in the winter,” Lunn said.
The POWs, who chose to work, earned 14 cents a day.
“The Maine POWs had it really well. We were committed to the Geneva Conventions Act. They had haircuts, dental and medical care. They could go to the base canteen and buy near beer. The U.S. provided them with musical instruments,” he said.
Before the handful of POWs arrived at the farm, Lunn and his father had an important conversation in which Lunn asked his dad why they were picking potatoes when the POWs could do that for them.
His father answered, “It’s our farm. That’s your row. Teach them how.”
One problem was that the prisoners were required to pick only 25 barrels a day. Given that poundage, Lunn’s dad did not think the crop would be out of the ground before frost. He offered the POWs a smoking deal. For every additional barrel of potatoes beyond the 25 mark, his dad would give out a Lucky Strike cigarette. If someone harvested 45 barrels, he would give them a pack of Luckies.
“Boy, you should have seen those potatoes fly,” he said.
When the young POWs showed up with their meals of bologna and blended meat sandwiches, Lunn’s mom shook her head, saying the sandwiches were not enough to sustain farm work. So, she doubled up on the casseroles – whatever the family was eating, she made more for the POWs who worked on the farm. Meals included frosted cupcakes. Come to find out, Lunn’s mom was not the only farmer’s wife who fed the prisoners. Her kindness did not stop at the kitchen table.
“When they came into the house, they would stand in front of the woodstove. They took off their boots and some of them had no socks,” Lunn said, adding his mom would go to the sock and mitten drawer and secretly put socks and mittens in their boots.
“That belief of helping and caring for others wasn’t new,” he said. “We fed them and we got to know them.”
The man Lunn befriended, Willi, was 19 or 20 years old. When he saw Lunn’s 10-year-old sister, Gail, he pulled out a photo of his sister, who looked very similar and was about the same age. Lunn’s sister ran upstairs and returned, presenting Willi with a package tied with red twine. Inside were doll clothes — to send to his sister. The next day, Willi gave it back and said accepting gifts was not allowed. For some reason, the moment had great emotion attached to it. Lunn watched “the enemy standing in the kitchen crying with my sister.”
Another time, his sister was driving the tractor (A 1939 Massy-Harris Digger) across the soft, tilled field. The POWs watched her bouncing up and down in the seat like she was on a bucking bronco. Suddenly, she bounced out of the seat and fell out of sight — between the seat and the wheel — with the tractor still rolling. One of the POWs scrambled to her rescue, stopping the equipment and most likely saving her life, Lunn said.
As time passed, the friendship between Lunn and Willi grew stronger. In fact, when he returned to France, they stayed in touch through letters. Many POWs willingly returned to Maine to visit.
In August 1945, the United Stated dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. “I was never able to talk to the men about that — that we had used the A-bomb.”
By the end of 1945, the Liberty ship took the German POWs back to Europe. The French people who had lived through the war were not as kind to them as Mainers had been.
“How nice it was to have had the Germans on our farm,” he said. “This experience, when we looked into the eyes of men forced into service, we saw them in a different environment where kindness could take place. My mother and father, until their last days on this earth, remembered with fondness the POWs.”
Lunn said, as a historian, he sees both the political history and the humanitarian aspect of that time period. He recalled the men who were prisoners of war marching and singing a lot. One of their favorite songs was, “Oh, give me land, lots of land. Don’t fence me in.”