Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Diversion Press Welcomes Antonio Thompson, Author of German Jackboots on Kentucky Bluegrass

Camp Sketch done by German POW
 Antonio Thompson is the author of German Jackboots on Kentucky Bluegrass.  He has his Ph.D. in Foreign Policy from the University of Kentucky and is an Assistant Professor of History.

For every 20 comments on Dr. Thompson's Diversion Press tour stop, we will be giving away a personalized, signed copy of German Jackboots on Kentucky Bluegrass.

We sat down with Antonio to find out more about his research and German Jackboots on Kentucky Bluegrass.

Why did you choose to research this topic and how long have you researching this field?
When I was working towards my Master’s Degree, I needed to find a unique thesis topic. I knew that I wanted to work on World War II, but I wasn’t sure what aspect exactly. Before class, a professor was chatting with us. He mentioned that German POWs were transported through Kentucky. A light went on, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Your book contains a wide range of materials from numerous sources. Where did you conduct research for this book and how did you know to look in those places?
The sources come from primary and secondary accounts. I looked through state and local archives in several states. While this book is focused on Kentucky, my other POW research has focused on other states, individual camps, individual POWs, and the entire nation.
Fort Knox, Kentucky Canteen
I also visited numerous camps to look through their records. I found very good material at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. My best sources, however, came from the Americans and Germans that I interviewed. I have been fortunate to speak to many former American soldiers, guards, farmers and co-workers of the POWs, and a good number of POWs as well.

One source often led to another. Someone I would interview would have a photo, a document, or a friend who was also involved.

You have interviewed numerous people for this project. Can you tell us about this experience?
 I should first say that I love to interview people. The World War II generation is fascinating. One of the most common comments that I got from those that I interviewed when I started this project was surprise that someone in their mid-20s was so interested. I seem to get it a bit less now that I am in my mid-30s, but I still do. I am happy to interview people, and in fact, I have about 30 people that I need to contact. If you are one of them I am sorry, this has been a busy semester!
Antonio Thompson, Walter Mathis (US Veteran),
Howard Tromp (Former German POW/US Veteran)
Some of the German veterans that I interviewed were very guarded, or were at first. One Kentucky woman said that they did not employ Germans because her family was German and found it repulsive. She didn’t want me to use her name in the book.

Other former German soldiers are quite talkative and tell some great stories. I think that what surprised me was that many of the POWs were just soldiers and simply young men. If you are not sure about that, read the accounts of these guys escaping looking for beer or to meet women or about how they pretended not to understand English so that they could eavesdrop on GI conversations and swipe documents from the trash. If you find it interesting to read about, imagine hearing it first hand!

You talk about German POWs returning to live in the US after the war. Did they just never go home or if they did go home, why did you find that they wanted to return to the US? During the war we held about 371,000 Germans and they were all required to go home after the war was over. Only one POW never left the U.S., and he was an escapee that remained “at large” working as a tennis and ski instructor until he turned himself in in 1985.

A lot of POWs found that they had discovered something as prisoners of war in the U.S. and returned later to visit or to live. It is hard to put a definition on what exactly the reasons for returning were, since each POW might have their own reason. One, for instance, returned to the U.S. permanently because his daughter married an American soldier, another because there seemed to be more opportunity for work, and a third because he enjoyed the freedom and democratic ideals. Some of this actually ties into the next question.

POW drawn sketch
 German Jackboots on Kentucky Bluegrass discusses the excellent treatment of German POWs during WWII. What did the US learn from this experience and can any of these lessons be applied today?  This is a question that in many ways frames my study. World War II was a brutal war; we fought enemies that were often unkind on the battlefield, in taking surrenders, and in the treatment of prisoners. I think it is not overstating that the Axis powers had global designs, which also sets World War II apart from other conflicts.

We signed the Geneva Convention of 1929 stipulating rules for the treatment of the captured enemy. We did not take that obligation lightly and went above and beyond what was required. I spend time discussing this good treatment in all of my works on U.S. handling of POWs in WWII.

This good treatment sets an example that despite the nature of World War II a captured enemy can be treated with humanity and dignity. I argue that we probably have never treated prisoners of war as good as here. Of course it pays us back. During the war the good treatment led to the POWs writing letters home, which in turn helped convince other soldiers that America treated POWs well leading in some cases to more surrenders. After the war many of the Germans either worked for the occupation government in post-war Germany or came back here to live or visit. Of course, we also were playing into the Cold War world of East and West Germany.

You have done numerous speaking engagements. What types of groups have you spoken to and what advice can you give to the new author who might not have as much speaking experience? Do you have a standard talk or do you tailor your talk to the group or some of both?
I just spoke to my daughter’s 4th grade class and talked for 15 minutes about what I do as a historian, what I write about, and what education you need. Handing out pennies to help them remember Abraham Lincoln got them a lot more excited than German POWs, the 8-12 years of college required to get a Ph.D., or my talk about what I do.

I love to speak to groups though. I have given formal talks to the Sons of the American Revolution, the Sons of the Confederacy, the history faculty at USMA West Point, local history groups, guest lectured on my topic at my college and been an invited speaker to several others.

I always give at least a quick overview of the POW program to provide a foundation, but typically I try to give a different talk each time. Some of the stories are so interesting or important that overlap is going to happen, but I also want to vary my talks.

POWs boarding train
 What are you working on now? Do you have other books or projects?
I have a couple of published articles and a second book that came out in the fall of 2010 from the University of Tennessee Press titled Men In German Uniform. I am also working with a colleague and friend, Dr. Christos Frentzos, on The Routledge Handbook of U.S. Military and Diplomatic History Since 1865 and am proud to say that my Ph.D. advisor and mentor, Dr. George Herring will be contributing.  I am also looking for a publisher for a book about the life Howard T., who served in the Luftwaffe and the USAF.

What are the best and worst parts of being a published author?
I like being a published author. I like doing book signings and talking to people. I don’t like having to push my book. I’ve had people come talk to me about other people’s books, about their taxes, and even ask me if I worked at the store at book signings. Once I got up to stretch my legs and lost my seat, the only one at the table with my pen, water, and books.

What would you like potential readers to know?
This is the best book about German POWs in Kentucky. Yes, it is the only one as well, but it is one of my favorite two books that I have written and I think you will like it.

POW mess hall
 Is there a question that you would like to leave up for comments or responses?
You can discover great, interesting, and important historical things right in your own town. Is there anything that happened, big or small, in your area, that others living there don’t know about?


  1. This is a very interesting story about an interesting set of events. It seems like a fascinating project to undertake. With the WWII veterans and that generation passing away, did you feel that it was sort of imperative to undertake the task of recording this history?

    As someone with Italian relatives, I was astonished to find in my area that there were actually relocation camps for Italian-Americans not unlike the Japanese internment camps. I noticed on tv, as well, that there is still an Italian-American internment camp but we call it New Jersey (joke).

  2. To answer your question, my father, a WW2 vet, always told me about the time (before WW2) when a zeppelin(I believe it was the Graf Zeppelin, I know it wasn't the Hindenburg) flew over Maysville, Kentucky dropping candy bars(I believe Baby Ruths) over the city. I wish I had more details on this story, but it always fascinated me.
    Also, did anything in your childhood trigger your love for history?

  3. Antonio, I enjoyed meeting you in December, and your enthusiasm for the subject of your book was contagious. I was especially interested in the topic, because my family had talked about German POW's in the Louisville area when I was a kid. Good luck to you and your fine book.

  4. This is so interesting. I am actually quite a WWII enthusiast, and I had no idea about this! Thanks for bringing a different aspect to WWII history that is probably unknown by many people!

  5. This is very interesting. One purpose of reading is to learn something new and I never knew we had German POW camps in the U.S. I knew about the Japanese internment camps, but you've broadened my vision with your book and I appreciate that.

  6. Hi Greg,

    The WWII generation is leaving us fast and we are losing a lot of firsthand information as well. I did feel a sense of urgency with the interviews. In one case I arranged an interview with a man and he passed before we conducted it.

    As for the Italian civilian camps, we had them for both Germans and Italians. I think you are right though, it is a lesser known part of U.S. history.

  7. Sean,

    That is an interesting story.

    To answer, your question, I am not really sure what triggered my love of history. I recall as a young boy reading books about Alexander the Great, submarine warfare, and lots of comic books. Actually, I just wrote a chapter for a book on the history of popular culture. My chapter was about Captain America and his influence on the popular understanding of foreign policy. So, perhaps Captain America influenced me as well?

  8. Hi Charles,

    I enjoyed meeting you as well. Thank you for your kind comments. I am sure we will do another event together again in the future. I really love Halloween Kentucky Style, my children love it too. Good luck to you and your book as well.

  9. Adrianne,

    Thank you for your kind comment.

  10. Linda,

    Thank you for your comment. I often get asked during my talks to comment on the Japanese-American camps. In addition to the German POWs, we also had Italian POW and Japanese POW camps, but in much smaller numbers.