Traveling museum tells stories of WWII POWs

By Jo Ann Hustis

SENECA, Ill. – Eleven-year-old Grant Hacker is caught up in World War II. The local fifth-grader reads every book he can find on the subject. His three maternal uncles and grandfather fought in the conflict.

So, when the Trace Museum’s Prisoner-of-War bus paid a three-hour visit to Seneca earlier this spring, Grant scampered aboard with his grandmother, Carol Cosmutto of Seneca.

The Trace Museum’s “Behind Barbed Wire” converted school bus is touring seven Midwest states this spring and summer, featuring first-person accounts by WWII prisoners-of-war from the Midwest. The exhibits concentrated on those taken prisoner by Hitler’s Third Reich.

The first U.S. troops sent to fight in WWII were Upper Midwesterners. About 1,800 soldiers, mostly from the Midwest, were captured in North Africa one night in early 1943.

Kellman said the Germans did not torture their POWs.

“They fed, clothed and housed our men to the best of their ability,” he said.

La Salle County had at least three POWs, all now deceased. They were former Ottawa Fire Department Chief Pete Thomson, captured in Corregidor; Earlville resident William Beach, who was captured in Bataan and took part in the infamous Bataan Death March; and Don Chase of Marseilles, a German POW who escaped on foot through Norway prior to the war’s end.

“What would you say about how the Germans did other stuff with the war?” Grant asked.

Kellman said American POWs were held in holding camps, not death camps, a totally different entity.

“They didn’t mistreat our men. The death camps were totally separate, and they shouldn’t be confused. The POWs were treated as humanely as possible, given the circumstances,” he said.

“Toward the end of the war, the Germans were starving and had no clothing, bedding or housing. They were being bombed every day.”

Between 90,000 and 92,000 American troops were captured in Europe during WWII.

The Trace Museum taped interviews with 25 to 50 ex-POWs, transcribed the tapes and attached the stories to panels on the walls of the rolling museum.

Each panel is a first-life account of life as a POW. Each panel is devoted to a different aspect of that POW’s story. Most important, these are first-person accounts.

“It’s not what happened to a cousin, brother or sister’s boyfriend, but what the men themselves went through, and what they experienced,” said Kellman.

“To a man, they’ll say, I wouldn’t take $25,000 for the experience, but I wouldn’t take $50 million to do it again.”