About 400 letters, stuffed inside an old Corn Flakes box, recall the experiences of some of the tens of thousands of prisoners of war who were sent to Tennessee during World War II.
In the late 1980s, Curtis Peters’ sister-in-law in Lawrenceburg found the letters — all from German men who were held at a prison camp near Tennessee’s southern border. The local history buff instantly recognized their significance.
After returning to Germany, the former soldiers wrote back to people they met as POWs with striking affection, sometimes referring to the Tennesseans as “Uncle and Aunt.”
In their native language, the men recalled eating fresh strawberries while in Tennessee and sent photographs of their wives and newborn children, along with accounts of the harsh realities of postwar Germany.
The letters became an object of local lore. But they had limited reach until Peters’ chance 2013 meeting with a Lipscomb University history professor at a local diner paved the way for their journey to Nashville.
Peters and his family officially donated the collection to Lipscomb’s Beaman Library this year.
The university gave German professor Charlie McVey, another member of the faculty, a summer grant to research and translate the letters for the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. And the Tennessee State Library and Archives gave the university a $1,250 grant to help digitize the letters and catalog them online.
McVey and his colleagues hope the unusually large collection will form the bedrock of a unique historical record of the POWs and their time in the Volunteer State.
POWS IN TENNESSEE
Prisoners of war, many of them rank-and-file soldiers, began arriving in Tennessee in 1943, according to Michael Bradley, a retired historian who extensively researched POW camps in the area. Historians estimate more than 400,000 prisoners of war were held across the country.
Because labor was scarce, many of the prisoners were put to work on farms, where they became friendly with local families.
Although the Germans and Americans initially knew each other as enemies, “working alongside people in the field, a lot of other things soon go by the wayside,” Bradley said.
In Lawrenceburg, many of the men worked on property owned by the wealthy Stribling and Brock families. As they cut timber and cleared fields, the men grew close with the Brocks, who would invite them to share cold buttermilk during their breaks.
“Perceptions that were uninformed became informed,” Peters said. “They realized, ‘These people are not what I expected.’ ”
After the war, when the prisoners returned home, their relationships with the Brocks endured. The Lipscomb letters illustrate the former prisoners’ ongoing gratitude toward the Brocks.
“They seem like cousins to these people, the way that they talk to each other,” said McVey, the German professor.
The Brocks would respond by sending the former prisoners clothing, laundry detergent and other goods that were all but impossible to find in Germany.
Former prisoner Erich Thimmann wrote the Brocks in 1947, thanking them for a Christmas package that included pants and leather shoes. He explained that he normally would have to turn to the black market to get clothes of that quality.
“I am so happy that I now once again can dress acceptably,” Thimmann wrote, in a translation by McVey. “And for this reason I must continue to be grateful to you all, my dear Brock Family. I would so very much like to make you happy. Perhaps in a subsequent letter.”
Letters kept coming in the 1950s and 1960s, with the latest one in the collection sent in 1972.
A CHANCE MEETING
Peters’ wife is related to the Stribling and Brock families. His sister-in-law found the letters stashed away in a family home and gave them to him.
One morning in 2013, when Peters stopped in for breakfast at a restaurant in Lawrenceburg, he was introduced to Tim Johnson, a Lipscomb history professor who was in town to research local connections to the Mexican-American War.
The letters came up as the pair chatted about history over eggs and bacon, laying the groundwork for the Lipscomb donation and McVey’s involvement.
McVey is working through the summer to complete the translations. The university is planning a series of events this fall to mark the launch of the Stribling-Brock Collection.
The German professor plans to bring together a group of other Tennesseans who are familiar with German prisoners of war. He said his hope is to form a research consortium for the study of prisoners of war in the region.
Although Johnson isn’t directly involved in the ongoing research and translations, he recognizes the historical value of the letters, and the lessons they share that still resonate today.
“What these letters are about is the development of relationships,” he said. “When you strip away the politics, I think a lot of times the people — who are the ones that get called on to fight the war — the people would get along just fine.”