When Bill and Charles Jacobs were growing up, two items in their home fascinated them. They loved to ask about them or get permission to play with them, because it usually led to hearing stories about the German prisoners of war that were housed in Peabody from 1943 to 1945.
Their father, William Jacobs Sr., was a guard at the POW camp in the Eyestone building (now Heckendorn) at Second and Vine streets. The German prisoners their father guarded during World War II made the items that fascinated young Charles and Bill.
A lightweight wooden replica of a German bomber with a swastika on the tail is one item they enjoyed playing with. They were careful with the plane and it remained in surprisingly good condition throughout their childhoods.
A second item made by a German prisoner of war is a wooden desk set that consists of a slanted wooden tray with grooves carved out to hold pens and pencils. The stand has two small wooden boxes attached. Each box has a lid and is capable of holding a small bottle of ink like people used in the 1940s.
There is a backdrop attached to the piece on which the prisoner carved a palm tree, the eagle and swastika insignia of the Third Reich, and what appears to be a guard tower.
“We used to wonder why the soldier would have carved a palm tree,” said Bill Jacobs. “For a long time, I guess we just thought there were palm trees in Germany. Then one time, Dad said, ‘No, the soldiers fought with Rommel in the Afrika Corps.’ Africa was where they had been when they were captured.”
“Dad was from Danville, Va. He was drafted when he was 36 so he was older than most of the men who came here to serve as guards,” Charles said. “He was sent to Fort Riley first and then transferred here. He always said this was a prisoner of war annex. There were lots of towns with POW camps, but he stayed in Peabody.”
“He met my mom, Frances Hass, and they were married after the war,” he added.
The brothers felt that their father had a place in an interesting part of Peabody’s history and decided the POW pieces should stay in the community.
“We used to love to get our dad to tell us stories about the war,” Charles said. “And our Uncle Russell — when he came to visit, we’d sit real quiet and listen to them talk. I just wish we had thought to write down what they said.”
The brothers asked their dad how the prisoners got the materials and tools to make the items.
“He told us to remember that back then there were no televisions and that the men were prisoners, they didn’t get a lot of privileges. And there wasn’t much to do in the evenings so they built little things to keep busy,” said Bill. “Dad said that back then most things were shipped in wooden crates — some rather flimsy and some pretty good and sturdy. They would scavenge that stuff and work on making things they could trade to the guards or the farmers they worked for and get cigarettes, candy, and the like.”
“He told us that sometimes they would make their own primitive tools, but lots of times, the guards let them use chisels, knives, and other tools. The guards trusted them,” he said. “The prisoners of war who were here were mostly average Germans, not Nazis, and they didn’t want to cause trouble and get sent back to Fort Riley.
“Dad said that many of the Germans were resourceful and could make just about anything,” Charles said. “He told us that one time he took a detail to the dump and someone had thrown away a sheet of stainless steel. A couple of the prisoners asked if they could have it and they ended up making two stainless steel sinks out of it.
“He had lots of stories like that about prisoners.”
Several months ago, Bill and Charles, who now lives in Geneseo, decided they would like to donate the items and some of the remaining pieces of their father’s Army uniform to the Peabody Historical Society in memory of their parents.
They recently stood on the steps of the old POW camp entrance and presented the items to Marilyn Jones and Pauline McPheeters of the Peabody Historical Society.
“We are always grateful when people like the Jacobs brothers make the effort to keep pieces of Peabody history in the community,” said Jones. “These are one-of-a-kind items that are impossible to duplicate. They will be a wonderful addition to the museum.”