By Missy Wattenbarger
During World War II, Jürgen Sperber, a German soldier, wanted to reassure his wife that, despite being a prisoner of war, he was living comfortably. He painted a medium-sized oil painting of his residence, a barracks in a camp that was supposed to house Japanese civilians, and had it mailed to her as a post card.
Seventy years later, the barracks depicted in Sperber's painting are no longer there, but memories of their presence, as well as Jergen's, live on in the Military Memorial Museum at 20 South Main St. in Crossville. In observance of the camp's 70th anniversary, the museum's staff of volunteers invites the public to stop by and visit the room dedicated to what was known as Camp Crossville.
"Although there are World War II items in it, the room is referred to as the POW Room, which is filled with all sorts of items from the camp — utensils, the fireplace where prisoners tried to escape underneath… (and the) painting by prisoner Jürgen Sperber…, which he donated to the museum after his death nearly two years ago," stated Nina Boring, museum director.
Boring and her staff are eager for visitors to see their latest acquisition — an elaborately detailed wooden model of the POW camp as it looked during Sperber's stay. It replaces a smaller model donated to the museum years ago by the local 4-H camp, which now uses the camp for their activities.
“We appreciated it, but it didn’t really tell you anything and a lot of the buildings were falling off,” said Boring.
Boring had been wanting to make a change for three years and recently received help from volunteers to help make it happen. The exhibit was funded in part by the Cumberland County Republican Women's Club, with the exhibit base, building and fence fabrication provided by Ron Laubham. The display was assembled over two months by Boring and museum volunteers Nick Feisk, Frank Kral, William McCalla, Charles Rau, Spencer Stanford, John Xenos, Charles Wierer, Gordon Overbey, Dot Roberts, Charles Persil, Warren Judd and Louke Kelly.
"I’m glad we’re able to do it to let the people actually see what the camp looked like, and I appreciate all the help that I had with it...” said Borning.
The POW camp was established on approximately 200 acres of a Civil Conservation Corps site. It opened in November 1942, with 68 Germans captured about 17 days earlier in Casablanca, South Africa. It was one of the first POW camps in the United States and housed more than 1,500 German and Italian prisoners.
"The camp was unique because it held officers from Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's North African Corps," Boring explained. "Medical officers both from German and Italian units were included among the prisoners. The camp also held General Pietro Gazzeri, one of the Italian army's highest ranking officers… but they eventually removed the Italians and took them to another camp, and then it became an all German camp after that.
"The only thing standing up right now at the POW camp is the chimney and one of the buildings that used to be either the warehouse or the hospital," she added. "They’re using it as a craft area right now... Everything else has been torn down.”
The new POW camp model rests on top of flooring that was removed from barracks from the site, which the museum obtained in 2001.
"A lot,” Borning chuckled when asked how many buildings were once on the site. “We have a map that we went by that showed us where the buildings went…”
Boring encourages the public to visit the museum to see the display and hear stories about the camp. Volunteers will gladly share tidbits about life behind the camp's walls, including the many ways prisoners tried to escape and how local folks interacted with them. Personal documents donated by Sperber, documenting his own experience, are also on display.
In addition, visitors can take in the many other exhibits at the museum showcasing memorabilia from the Civil War through today. Many of the artifacts were donated by veterans, their families and other individuals and organizations.
"When we started, we had around 110 items,” Borning noted. “Now, we have around 2,700.”
Among those items are books that Boring believes will come in handy for anyone doing research related to the military. Until recently, they did not have a proper place for them, Boring noted.
"We started a reading section called the Soldiers Room located in a upstairs room," she said. "It’s a work in progress — bookcases are greatly needed — but hundreds or books are available for researching purposes. They will be available by appointment only."
The museum does not charge admission, but a donation is always appreciated. It is open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends by appointment. Schools, organizations, families and other groups are welcome as well.
Anyone interested in volunteering at the museum is encouraged to contact Boring. No military training or knowledge is required, and volunteers pick the number of days and hours they would like to work.
"You can work half a day, once a month, every week... as long as I know I can rely you,” Boring said.
For more information about the museum, or how to become a volunteer, call Boring at 510-7692.