History Of WWII POWs In Colorado Unearthed By Loveland Playwright
As the former editor for the Berthoud Weekly Surveyor, Rick Padden knows a good story when he reads one. When the newspaper ran a story about Camp 202 -- dubbed Camp Greeley -- where 1,500 German prisoners of war were housed during World War II, Padden was inspired.
“It almost wrote itself,” he said. “I literally wrote the basic play in 21 days.”
The play, titled Beets, debuted in 2009. Loveland's Moon Theatre Company is presenting a revival of the show.
It follows the Hunts. In 1944 The Berthoud family is struggling with a potentially record-high sugar beet season while most of the able-bodied men are away at war. When they are offered free labor from the German POWs, they hesitantly agree.
While the family is fictitious, the play is heavily based on fact. That’s where Padden’s newspaper background came in handy.
“I used an awful lot of real language from letters that soldiers wrote home to their parents in Berthoud at the time,” Padden said. “They were all published in the newspaper. They were shared that way.”
But not everything was so easy to find.
“If you look at the instructions that the government gave the farmers -- the rules, so to speak, in treatment of prisoners -- one of them was: ‘Don’t talk to the media,’” Padden said.
Bob Lebsack, 90, remembers that rule.
“We were instructed not to broadcast the fact that they were there because of possible demonstrations,” said Lebsack, who was 17 when POWs came to work on his family’s beet farm in Berthoud. “These were the enemy; they had been shooting at us.”
Lebsack helped Padden with research for the play, telling him about driving the truck to Camp 202 each morning.
Lebsack would pick the prisoners up early in the morning and drive them out to the farm where they would spend the day harvesting sugar beets. The work was similar to what many of them had done in Germany before the war.
“These were just plain old country boys as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I learned to know a lot of them - not by name but by action. [...] What they had to do and how they worked.”
When asked if he was ever nervous working around Nazi POWs, Lebsack was matter-of-fact about it.
“No, we knew they weren’t armed,” he said. “Of course, there’d be one guard and maybe 12 to 14 prisoners. And if you looked at the survey of the crew that was outside -- myself, my father, brother -- you know, we were half as many as they were.”
There was one escape. Sort of.
“One of them got away from the guard and they found him about maybe two miles somewhere,” Lebsack said. “He was supposed to be working (but) he’s sitting in a beer hall in Johnstown drinking beer.”
For Padden, talking to Lebsack was like getting a window into another world. For Lebsack, the interviews reminded him of the more human side that he saw in the POWs.
“This one boy that was there, he was part of the German home front,” Lebsack said. “They drafted these young soldiers; he was less than 18 years of age. Dad would offer the other prisoners tobacco to make their own cigarettes. He said, ‘No, I don’t want tobacco. I want chewing gum.’”
“I mean this was the part that I grabbed onto because these were young. [...] This was something they had to do,” he added. “His comments says, ‘We don’t like what we’re doing, but it’s our country.’ Exactly the same feeling that our boys had going the other way. We don’t like what we’re doing, but it’s our country.”
The POW camps were not unique to Colorado. According to Padden, more than 400,000 POWs were brought to the United States during World War II. The camps were in all but two states.
“It had played out in very similar fashion all across the country,” Padden said. “I mean, after the success of the premier I started researching some other places and actually wrote a version for Kansas called Wheat and a version for Nebraska called Corn. And (I) found towns and research, background that was very, very similar. It’s rural America.”
And just like the family in the play, Lebsack said having the POWs working the farm taught him something as well.
“It showed me that the conflicts that we had within our society wasn’t generated by the individual,” he said.
Which reminded Padden about a line in Beets:
“Young men just take the orders and foolish old men send them to war.”