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Soldiers' friendly waves last a lifetime

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By W.B. Evans

A visit to see what was growing at Uncle Perry Scott’s farm in Winnsboro was a big change compared to our Victory Garden.

Everybody there had red clay beneath their fingernails, with farms all over the place.

However, there’s not as many people plowing right now. Uncle Perry said most of the local boys are wearing military uniforms and fighting in foreign fields. 

A friend of Uncle Perry had this big old farm, which supplied bunches of vegetables to the Fort Jackson Army base.

With the farmhand shortage, somebody came up with a government program that used German POWs as farmhands.

I got wind of it before I arrived for my annual week-long summer stay with Uncle Perry and Aunt Ada.

It was the talk of rural Fairfield County, too. Honest-to-goodness captured Nazi solders were there hoeing corn and picking beans. 

Gosh, what happened? How in the world did the Germans get here?

I figured they slipped into South Carolina  by U-boat down at Folly Beach or Murrells Inlet.

When Uncle Perry said we needed to go to town, I was all for it. I could eavesdrop on the conversation just like I did when Daddy, Uncle Harry and fellas talked politics on our front porch.

However, I was kind of puzzled. While we were at the Fairfield Courthouse in the middle of town, farmers and businessmen were talking politics alright, but none of ’em seemed particularly upset about German soldiers being in the area.

You know, that’s always been my trouble; I hear something, but don’t get the whole gist of the situation at first.

There was a good reason for that. Daddy’s philosophy was that children should be seen and not heard.

“Young folks shouldn’t be asking adults bunches of silly questions,” he said.

Well, seeing how Daddy wasn’t around, I just up and asked the men about the German soldiers. The conversation stopped. Uncle Perry shook his head and didn’t say a word. From the looks my question generated, they knew about Daddy’s philosophy, too.

A big man in bib overalls squatted down and looked at me eye to eye.

“Boy, them Germans are captured soldiers the government believes can be trusted to work on our farms,” he said. “Yep, they’re ’round here, but they’re keeping ’em under tight reign. They got guards watching ’em and are keeping them away from regular folks.”

That was all I needed to know. I shook my head and didn’t mutter another word. This was one time where knowing the whole story didn’t make a big difference.

Now, I was getting all excited about seeing real Germans. There were some German families in Lancaster, but shucks, they talked just like us and ran stores on Main Street.

Based on what I had seen on the big screen at the picture show I expected hardened soldiers to be a whole lot different. I just had to see one.

I guess I worried Uncle Perry so much about it that he finally gave in and took me out to his friend’s farms for a closer look.

I was disappointed. Shucks, none of ’em were dressed in uniforms. They were wearing white shirts and pants with the letters “PW” painted on them.

I got as close as I could to the field where they were working.

The guards warned us to keep away from them and not to speak to them. Well, the rules slipped my mind. Before I knew it, I was waving at the ones close to me.

Bless Pete, a couple of ’em smiled and waved right back.

I couldn’t help but wonder how in the world these fellas could be so mean and accused to hurting so many folks.

I had heard plenty of stories about American POWs. I hope they’re getting treated the same way we are treating these fellas. I guess it all depends on the situation.

I silently wondered if any of the captured uniform patches or the metal German helmet on display at the county library on Gay Street belonged to one of the fellas who waved at me. I really wanted to hold that German Luger pistol but it was bolted down on a wooden block. It was long time before any stuff captured from the Japanese was on display.

I never forgot their friendly waves that day.

The next summer when I visited Uncle Perry, I asked him if the Germans farmhands were still around.

“Nope, they’re no longer here,” he said. “I guess they’re working someplace else.”

Years later, I again encountered former German soldiers who worked in our military motor pool in Saigon.

At the time, the French Foreign Legion was pulling out of Vietnam and those whose enlistment had run out, were left to get home the best way they could. Many of those French Foreign Legions soldiers were German World War II veterans who didn’t have anything to go home to.

Given that, the military advisory group I was attached to opted to hire many of those ex-German soldiers as mechanics.

One of my buddies had a car that was mostly a bucket of rust, but those German mechanics rebuilt it like it had just come off the assembly line in Detroit. In fact, my friend sold it and made enough to buy a new car when he returned stateside.

It just goes to show if you live long enough, nothing is surprising.