Author to speak at Troy library about WWII POWs in Michigan

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published March 12, 2019

TROY — Did you know that during World War II, Italian and German prisoners of war picked sugar beets in Michigan’s Thumb region, cut wood in the Upper Peninsula and picked fruit in Berrien County due to severe labor shortages?

“The work programs were not flawless and not all of the prisoners were cooperative, but many of the men established enduring friendships with their captors,” author and University of Detroit Mercy history professor Gregory Sumner states in his book, “Michigan POW Camps in World War II,” published by History Press.

Sumner holds a doctorate in American history from Indiana University and a juris doctor from the University of Michigan. He will discuss his book at 7 p.m. March 21 at the Troy Public Library.

“We’re really interested in delving into the history of Michigan,” said Natasha Rogers, the adult services librarian. She noted that copies of the book will be available at the library for checkout.

Sumner, who said he was on spring break when C & G Newspapers contacted him before deadline, explained via email that the book evolved after he finished his first book, “Detroit in World War II.”

“I discovered there were Italian POWs at Fort Wayne and the (Michigan) State Fairgrounds and wanted to know more,” he said. “They were among the 6,000 POWs held in Michigan, Germans and Italians, at 32 camps scattered around the state.”

He said the subject “begged for a book, since so few today know about it and it is a good story —  how we followed the Geneva Convention and provided humane treatment for these young men once the ‘bad guys’ were mostly weeded out and sent to camps out west.

“In return, they worked hard in mostly agricultural jobs and were a godsend in a time of severe labor shortages. They often formed almost family relationships with their guards and the Michiganders they worked for, and many later became U.S. citizens.

“My biggest surprise? Everywhere I go to talk about the book, people come out of the woodwork to tell me their stories, and again, the theme is that even in the middle of a global war, when people get to know each other, the barriers break down and fraternization, though against the formal rules, naturally seems to happen. A good lesson for us today.”

The Troy Public Library is located at 510 W. Big Beaver Road.

Register for the program at troypl.org or by calling (248) 524-3534.