FOUR CORNERS – It comes as a real eye-opener for many families, Rob Dent noted, as they learn something remarkable about Florida’s role in the Second World War.
While the Sunshine State did provide a lot of soldiers to fight in the war in Europe, Florida also provided something else: prisoner of war camps for soldiers allied with the Nazi effort.
“It’s very interesting, because the biggest response we get is people saying ‘I had no idea we had prisoner of war camps here in Florida,’ “ said Dent, the director of communications for the Museum of Military History in Four Corners.
“There was a total of just over 40 POW camps here in Florida,” Dent said. “But there were multiple states – Georgia, the Carolinas, and all the way up to the Midwest – with POW camps, and typically they put those camps in rural areas. Although we are no longer considered a rural area — especially Orlando — at that time, the government wanted them away from concentrated populations.”
The prisoners, he added, did not just sit in those camps. They were used in a unique way: to assist Florida’s leading economic engine at the time, which wasn’t tourism or theme parks.
“At that time, there were thousands of prisoners, and they were used for agricultural purposes because so many Florida residents were in the war effort,” Dent noted. “So the prisoners harvested fruit and vegetables. It’s quite an interesting story.”
It’s a history chronicled in a traveling exhibit, “Humanity Beyond Barbed Wire: Hitler’s Soldiers in the Sunshine State,” which is now at the Museum of Military History, located at 5210 W. Irlo Bronson Highway (U.S. 192) in Four Corners.
The exhibit opened on Nov. 9 and continues through Dec. 30. The exhibit looks back to the 1940’s, when Florida was still a rural state, with an economy built on agriculture more than tourism.
As Dent noted, among the insights in the exhibit is the fact that prisoners worked in the Florida citrus groves picking fruit while most of the state’s male labor force was engaged in the overseas war effort.
Few Florida residents today, Dent said, are aware of this fact – and many of the museum’s patrons who have come in to see the exhibit are surprised to learn this.
“The biggest shock for people is they say ‘I had no idea about this part of our history,’ “ Dent said. “But that is exactly our mission. Our mission is to educate and show people the entire military experience.”
The Museum of Military History, Inc. is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, created to educate, increase awareness, build knowledge and understanding of the American military experience through interactive, interpretive exhibits.
Those exhibits, designed for visitors of all ages, were built up from historic military artifacts and relics donated by local veterans, and they run from the Civil War all the way up to the current military conflicts in the Middle East.
“Humanity Beyond Barbed Wire” is an exhibit on loan to the Museum of Military History.
The Florida Holocaust Museum, which is in St. Petersburg, created this exhibition from a book by Robert Billinger called “Hitler’s Soldiers in the Sunshine State.” It provides insights into this era of Florida’s history through the eyes of people who lived through, and witnessed first hand, this wartime period.
“It was created by the Holocaust museum, which certainly would have every reason to be defensive about many of the outcomes of World War II for what happened during that horrible period,” Dent said. “But they did want to draw a sharp contrast in this exhibit. Our POW camps were confined to the military and did not overlap into the community, and for the large part they were peaceful camps, and the prisoners were treated very humanely — especially when compared to similar camps in Germany at the time.”
As Dent noted, the Holocaust Museum’s exhibit illustrates the principles of a democratic nation offering humane treatment of enemy combatants during World War II. Part of the exhibit shows former German POWs looking back on their experiences in American POW camps – some positively.
It’s a slice of history long forgotten, but well worth remembering and chronicling, Dent said.
“I think they were surprised at the level of humanity we showed, as well,” Dent said.
Originally housed in a much smaller office at the Osceola Square Mall, the Museum of Military History’s collection of military memorabilia grew so rapidly that the organizers quickly ran out of space. The board of directors had to look for a larger building, and found it in their current location on U.S. 192, a tourist-friendly highway.
The museum now has a huge collection of historic artifacts from American’s past wars.
Dent said the museum was all too happy to pick up the Holocaust Museum’s exhibit.
“Typically what museums will do is once they’ve created something like this, for purposes of sharing information with other museums and making it available to them — plus it’s a revenue generator for them — they market it to rent, and we rented it for two months,” he said. “Eventually it will go around the state and southwest.”
The exhibit was also ideal for the Museum of Military History at this time of year, when families take vacations from work and their children are out of school for the holidays, Dent said.
“People that might find their kids out of school and are looking for something to do can come see the museum as well as the exhibit,” Dent said. “There’s nothing like a truly living classroom, when you see the visuals in it. It’s absorbing, and it’s important for kids and their families.”
To learn more about the exhibit, call 407-507-3894 or visit Museum of Military History.
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