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June 16, 1945 • The day German POWs escaped their camp near St. Louis

June 16, 1945 • The day German POWs escaped their camp near St. Louis

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CHESTERFIELD • Cpl. Helmuth Levin and Private Rudolf Straussberg left notes of explanation on their bunks. They slipped past the guards at night and fled through the vegetable fields they tended.

“Returning to Germany would just be going from a Nazi dictatorship to a Russian dictatorship,” Levin wrote in German. Straussberg added an apology to his keepers for causing “the trouble of looking for us.”

Levin and Straussberg were among the 420,000 German and Italian prisoners of war who spent part of World War II under guard in the United States. About 15,000 of them were sent to 30 camps scattered across Missouri.

Most of the POWs went to large camps, including one covering 960 acres near Weingarten in Ste. Genevieve County. Others were confined in small outposts such as Hellwig Brothers Farm, near U.S. Highway 40 on the Missouri River bottomland then known as Gumbo Flats.

Thousands of Axis POWs worked in the fields, replacing American farm boys gone to war. Some fought floods with sandbags. A few Italian prisoners even worked in the St. Louis Ordnance Depot on North Broadway, handling nonexplosive freight after their country switched sides in the war.

Working POWs earned 80 cents per day, and sometimes could buy beer at prison canteens.

When Levin and Straussberg fled Hellwig farm on June 16, 1945, they were among roughly 100 German POWs who lived there. Five weeks after Germany’s surrender, American security had become a bit haphazard.

Earlier that evening, a English-speaking fellow prisoner heard an American radio broadcast suggesting that German POWs be dispatched to the uncertain care of the Soviet army. Levin, 31, and Straussberg, 23, resolved to skedaddle.

They made it 10 miles south to the Meramec River, but farmers saw them and called the Highway Patrol. Troopers nabbed Levin in an empty clubhouse. Straussberg fled into the woods, but he didn’t get far.

Italians went to Camp Weingarten, at the German-heritage village of 99 residents. The 3,600 prisoners planted tomatoes and took over cooking, attracting American guards with their spicy enhancements to GI fare. Prisoners wore rejected GI garb marked with “PW.”

Most Americans regarded them as curiosities, but there was conflict. Union leaders protested the use of POWs at a quarry near Pevely. Letters to newspapers complained of “coddling” prisoners with such things as swimming-pool time at Jefferson Barracks, where 400 Germans were housed.

In March 1945, national radio commentator Walter Winchell claimed that Germans on Hellwig farm could sneak across the Missouri River into the explosives plant at Weldon Spring and blow the place up. American commanders dismissed his report as hysterical.

Italy’s surrender in 1943 changed the status of the Italian POWs, who remained here but were granted more freedom, including occasional trips to the Hill neighborhood. The last German POWs didn’t head home until 1946.

A year later, the American government auctioned the buildings and fixtures, including 52 floodlights, at Camp Weingarten.

Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series. 

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