story by: ellen thompson
page design by: bobbie morse
CHINOOK - Imagine driving on U.S. Highway 2, past the Blaine County Fairgrounds, glancing to the south and seeing a formidable barbed wire enclosure. In the center are dozens of canvas tents, and above them, rather than an announcer's booth, is a guard tower manned by armed guards.
It's an unlikely image, but a generation of Blaine County residents carry it in their memory of World War II Chinook. As the city prepares to celebrate its sweet history with the first Sugarbeet Festival on Oct. 7-8, some old-timers recall the visitors that the sugar beets once brought, including German prisoners of war.
"It is something that we still talk a lot about," Blaine County native and former sugar beet farmer John Overcast said.
Chinook was one of 19 temporary POW camps statewide, said Brian Shovers, a Montana Historical Society librarian. Most of those were in communities with sugar beet farming.
Chinook residents also recall mention of another camp in Harlem.
Several hundred prisoners arrived at Chinook in 1944, staying through the sugar beet harvest, with several staying through the year, Overcast said. The following year, another group of prisoners arrived for harvest.
The first group, in particular, left an impression. They were unlikely soldiers - older men and boys, he said.
"They were scraping the bottom of the barrel toward the end. They were ragged when they were captured and they were happy to become prisoners. They would point to the POW on their shirts and say, 'Dat ist good.' ... It was certainly a better situation than what they had left in combat," Overcast said.
Overcast, who had just graduated from high school, was among a group of farmers paid by the sugar company to build a fortified encampment in the summer of 1944.
It was built inside the racetrack of the old Blaine County Fairgrounds, he said. At the time, the fairground was located just southeast of its current location, from where Meadowlark School is to where the Catholic church sits.
Overcast estimated there were about 300 prisoners in all. Each day they were split into groups of 20. A farmer would pick up a load of prisoners in the morning and take them to his field, where they would spend the day cutting and thinning sugar beets.
There was some difference of opinion about what kind of relationship Blaine County residents should have with the prisoners, but the general opinion of the prisoners themselves was good, Overcast said.
"After we saw their attitude, the first group especially, there was no animosity. Actually, we treated them as well as we could," he said.
Most prisoners who could speak English said they had not fought in the war by choice. Residents who could speak German were told the same, Dorris Hamilton said.
Hamilton was in eighth grade when the prisoners arrived, she said. Her father could speak German, and often served as a translator.
"They were just thankful they were not over there," Hamilton said.
She recalls one prisoner who she described as a "real Nazi." The man boasted of family members who were generals, and he wanted to return to the war. But the man, Hamilton said, was mostly shunned by the other prisoners, who wanted to return to see their families, not to fight.
Among them were 15-year-old boys who must have been only 14 when they were drafted, Overcast said.
For the farmers' part, the prisoners were considered good workers. Farmers encouraged the good work by helping feed the men.
Each day a prisoner was given a butter sandwich and water to take with him for the day, Hamilton said. Farmers would keep a stew going and some milk to help fortify them, Hamilton said.
One day, she said, a prisoner told her father that the next day was his birthday. On his birthday, the prisoner said, his wife would always make him fried chicken.
Her father caught a chicken and her mother prepared it. The next day, Hamilton's father delivered the chicken.
"I don't remember who stopped the truck and talked to the guard and kept them occupied, but they slipped the fried chicken to the back of the truck to this man," she said. "The next day the man cried to my dad and thanked him for what he did."
In other cases, some Chinook residents believed the friendliness had gone too far, Overcast said. On Christmas, some residents went to the camp to sing with the prisoners.
"Some people thought this was not proper - they were fraternizing with the enemy," he said.
But, Overcast added, "It brought good will. They were singing Christmas carols in two languages together" across a barbed wire fence.
Overcast also had an impression of what the prisoners thought of Chinook.
"This one fellow who took charge the first day they came, he had been a beet farmer in Germany," Overcast said. "They were interested in the farming here. They looked at our area and saw places we didn't cultivate. They said, 'You have more land that you don't use than we have farms in Germany."'
In 1945, a different group of prisoners came to Chinook.
"They had a different attitude. They weren't happy about having to work," Overcast said. Most of them had been Hitler's storm troopers.
"'They did (the work) because they were forced too," he said.
"One of them that could speak English asked why are we Americans fighting on the same side of the Russians," Overcast said. "I said, 'When Hitler set out to conquer the entire world, what do you expect us to do, sit idly by?'"
The German said that Germany was trying to form a United States of Europe.
Overcast said he told the man the two were not going to see eye-to-eye on the subject.
Overcast's father kept in touch with one of the prisoners. Overcast has kept two notes from the man, Josef Saxler. One is written in English and arrived from Liverpool, England, in 1946. In that note, Saxler writes that he was treated better in Chinook than he was in England. He added that he missed the peanut butter sandwiches and tobacco he received there. Saxler also said he was disappointed he had not yet been sent home, since the war had ended.
A second note arrived from Germany in 1948. That letter is written in German.
Hamilton said a few former prisoners settled in the Chinook area later. Church groups sponsored the return of some of those.
Of those Hamilton knew, all have died or moved elsewhere for retirement.
Looking back, Overcast said many different people came to the area for sugar beet harvest. Sometimes migrant workers from Mexico, and people from California and Texas, helped work the land.
Also in the World War II era, Japanese-Americans relocated from the West Coast came to Chinook and worked along with the farmers.
Some came voluntarily, anticipating a forcible move, and others came because they were told to.
Overcast said some people didn't trust the displaced Japanese-Americans at first, saying they might poison the water. For his part, Overcast said, he had good friends among the immigrants, including a man who had come before the relocation and helped smooth the way for newcomers to find work with farmers.
In 1952, a flood signaled the beginning of the end for sugar beet farming in the area. That year the sugar company moved to Washington because the fields were underwater.
Up until 1978, farmers continued to ship sugar beets to a plant in Billings, sharing the shipping cost with the company there. But in 1978, the company stopped accepting sugar beets by rail.
Since that time, on Overcast's farm and elsewhere in the area, farmers have raised corn, alfalfa, hay and malt barley, he said.