Gary Slaughter - Author of Sea Stories
WW II POWs in America and Abroad Q & A

Q: Why do so few people today know about the millions of people imprisoned around the world between 1939 and 1945, especially about the American citizens held in POW camps right here in America?

A: There are several reasons. First, most Americans who were old enough to have observed POWs in our country are no longer living. Second, by 1946, every POW had left America, taking their records with them. In addition, POWs were imprisoned in camps near small towns with little national press coverage. And few history books, following the war, included this event.

Q: You’ve been fascinated by World War II POWs your entire life. How did the United States enter into the POW business?

A: In 1943, Americans landed in North Africa to join the British who were fighting there and had captured many Germans and Italians. The British had few materials to construct POW camps and couldn’t spare men to guard them. So, the United States agreed to take custody of 50,000 POWs. They were shipped back to America on the empty Liberty ships that had just off-loaded American troops and equipment in Algeria and Morocco.

The United States had no facilities to house prisoners in America because our primary focus was on the build-up of our armed forces. But, within weeks, a construction program for POW camps was submitted to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These camps were to be built on American military bases and on the hundreds of abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camps.

In the 1940s, small towns across America, such as my hometown of Owosso, Michigan, were among the 940 American communities where permanent POW base camps and branch camps were established.

To prevent mass escapes, the prisoners were dispersed widely in 155 base camps and 785 branch camps located all over the country, at least 170 miles from the coast and 150 miles from the Canadian and Mexican borders.

When World War II ended, there were some 5,000 Japanese, 51,000 Italian, and 379,000 German POWs for a total of 435,000 POWs in America. These were in addition to the huge number of POWs in Allied camps in both Europe and Asia.

Q: You mentioned a POW camp in your hometown of Owosso, Michigan. Tell us about it.

A. In 1944, when I was 5 years old, a German POW branch camp for 2,000 POWs was established on the grounds of an auto racetrack about four miles west of Owosso. The camp was about 100 yards square and was surrounded by two (inside and outside) high, barbed wire fences with watch towers.

On Sundays after church, Owosso citizens drove their families out to the camp and slowly drove around the perimeter to observe the German POWs inside.

The POWs were housed in large tents. They lived there from spring until winter, working on farms and in factories in the area. In the winter months, they returned to their base camp near Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Q: How did you become interested in the subject of POWs in America?

A: When I was in grade school, my best friend, Billy Curtis, and I took a shortcut through the parking lot of a canning factory in our neighborhood. On our way to school, we observed German POWs unloading truckloads of fruits and vegetables and carrying them into the factory where they were processed into cans or jars of fruit and vegetables.

The vast majority of our POWs were young men who seemed to be having the time of their lives. They befriended us and, in a way, we became like their younger brothers. They even invited us into the canning factory to join them for lunch in their dining hall, of course with the consent of the Army guards who were armed with submachine guns.

We loved being accepted by this group of smiling, blond haired, and blue-eyed young men. This experience began my lifelong interest in POWs.

In the 1980s, as an expert on the subject of corporate information technology, I was invited to consult to many European companies. On two occasions, I met high level executives who were eager to discuss the times they had experienced as POWs in America.

Q: When you were a young boy, was your perception of Germans influenced by seeing these POWs working in your community?

A: Yes. Owosso had a significant number of German immigrants, so we were used to being among them. But the presence of German POWs enhanced our positive impressions of Germans in general.

Q: The vast majority of prisoners in POW camps were enlisted men. According to the Geneva Convention, they were required to work. However, that work could not be demeaning, dangerous or defense-related. Prisoners worked the same hours as their American counterparts, eight hours a day and six days a week, in jobs such as farming, forestry, and food processing. And, POWs were paid for their work. But what was life like for an imprisoned officer?

A: Some German officers in American POW camps volunteered to do manual labor, just to keep in shape and pass the time.

All officers were provided fine quarters, a garden, and an American, German-speaking GI to assist them. They were also served better food than the enlisted POWs. Officers were even provided a car, driven by their GI, to tour the countryside. But they had to swear not to attempt to escape. Of the hundreds of German officers imprisoned, none ever attempted to escape.

In short, because of the fine treatment, most POW officers rather enjoyed their stay In America. Needless to say, the Germans preferred being in an American POW camp to fighting Russians in the dead of winter. And we acquired much information from the personal GIs assigned to them.

Q: You’ve talked about how German POWs were treated here in the United States, but how were American POWs treated in German POW Camps?

A: Germany was our only WWII enemy to sign the Geneva Convention. This document spelled out how enemy POWs were to be treated. Japan and Italy did not sign. On balance American POWs in German camps were treated very well as compared to Americans held in Japanese camps. Unfortunately, when it appeared that Germany was losing the war, treatment of our POWs there worsened considerably.

Q: After the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States suspected that Japanese Americans living here might act as saboteurs or espionage agents, so the United States even imprisoned its own citizens. During the war, these citizens included some 30,000 Japanese Americans. Can you discuss that?

A: Yes. This was tragic. A War Relocation Authority was established. Its mission was – and I quote – “to take all people of Japanese descent into custody, surround them with troops, prevent them from buying land, and return them to their former homes at the close of the war.”

On March 28, 1942, these Japanese Americans were forced to sell their property within two weeks. Many of them were business professionals, doctors, and lawyers.

Conditions at the camps were sparse. They were forced to live in uninsulated barracks furnished with only cots and coal-burning stoves. Residents used common bathroom and laundry facilities. Hot water was usually limited.

They set up schools, churches, farms, and newspapers. Children played sports and engaged in various activities. These Japanese-Americans spent as long as three years living in the camps.

Finally, in December 1944, internees could return to their homes, but most remained in the camps for another year because of anti-Japanese sentiment in America. About 55,000 returned to life outside the barbed wire. Those who returned to the West Coast found their property vandalized, farms gone to seed, and businesses bankrupt.

Q: What was it like growing up in Owosso during the war? Everyone had to sacrifice for the war effort. Did you feel deprived?

A: As a young boy, growing up in America during the war was exciting, but we had to adjust to shortages of food and clothing. Food was rationed since we were feeding our military and POWs here and in Europe and Asia. Because clothing factories were converted to produce clothing for our military and for POWs, civilian clothing was also rationed. And there were no new toys or bicycles because those factories were converted to produce war materials.

Yes, all American families sacrificed, but we never lost sight of the fact that these sacrifices were necessary for us to win the war. After all, every family in my neighborhood had one or two members serving in the armed forces.

Q: Is there anything that you experienced during the war years that you miss today?

A: I miss the spontaneous expressions of patriotism and the love and respect for our fellow citizens as it existed during the war. Everyone sacrificed and no one complained about it. We were all extremely proud to do so.

Q: Watching classic movies is a passion of yours. Are movies about POWs mentioned in your book?

A: One of my favorite POW films is “The Great Escape,” based on Paul Brickhill’s nonfiction book. This is a first-hand account of a mass escape of British and American prisoners from German POW Stalag Luft III in the province of Lower Silesia, Nazi Germany. Actual events are depicted in this best POW camp escape movie. I won’t tell you how many times I have watched this gem that stars Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough.

Q: You have devoted your life to writing over the past two decades. What advice would you give aspiring writers?

A: It’s been extremely hard work but worth every drop of perspiration that has fallen from my brow.

Positive and enthusiastic feedback from my readers is more than I ever thought I would be fortunate enough to enjoy during these last years of my life.

My advice to aspiring authors: Don’t sell yourself short. I never had any idea that I would be a respected author of eight books, both fiction and non-fiction. Simply put, don’t underestimate your ability until you’ve given it good try.

Q: You and your wife, Joanne, collaborated on all of your books. How did you divide up the responsibilities to produce these books?

A: First of all, Joanne is extremely intelligent and very meticulous. She was an English major in college, taught English for 10 years, and is a voracious reader.

Joanne relieves me of an author’s tasks that don’t appeal to me. She takes my draft manuscripts and then studies, corrects, and improves them. She works with our agent and publisher to produce these works of art. Then, she promotes and schedules my book events. Finally, she handles book sales and financial transactions.

After having described all this, you might ask me, “just what do you do?”

Q: You and your wife have been a team in a very successful business career spanning many decades. What is the secret to the success of your partnership?

A: The most important ingredient is that we completely trust each other, and we have learned over the years how to divide the work in a way that takes advantage of each of our strong suits. But most importantly we both love and like each other.

Q: You often write about Owosso. Have you ever considered moving from Nashville back to Michigan?

A: Absolutely not. After graduating from the University of Michigan, I spent the better part of a decade as a naval officer on ships homeported in warm climates, like Key West and Norfolk, Virginia. Before moving to Nashville, we lived many years in Naples, Florida. We sometimes wonder why we moved way up here to Nashville. But going back to Michigan? The idea literally sends chills up my spine.

Sea Stories Q & A

Q: Since 2004, you have authored a highly-successful series of five Cottonwood novels. Now you have written an autobiographical account of your service as a Navy midshipman and naval officer spanning some 11 years. Why the change to non-fiction?

A: Much of the material in the Cottonwood novels was a fictionalized version of what I actually experienced growing up in a small Michigan town during World War II. The stories, that so delighted my readers, were about real people, places, and events that occurred when I was a young boy. But there’s the rub. I was a young boy. Decades later when I wrote the Cottonwood novels, because there was hardly anyone still living to corroborate my recollections, I decided to fictionalize them.

Q: Was that a good thing or bad?

A: It turned out to be a very good thing, because this circumstance provided me with a great advantage. I was able to exaggerate and expand personalities of the characters. More importantly, I could blend the personalities and characteristics of more than one person into a single, stronger and more interesting, fictional character. Of course, this required a healthy amount of imagination, which was one of my strongest attributes having spent the majority of my boyhood as an only child. And because my parents both worked in defense plants during the war, these circumstances meant that I spent a great deal of time alone on my grandparents’ farm which was isolated about ten miles from town. In short, I became my best and only friend. So I conversed with myself in my head a great deal of the time. This stimulated my imagination.

Q: Was shifting to non-fiction a difficult transition for you?

A. Not at all. All my life, I’ve been considered a good story teller. Successfully writing five, 400-page award-winning novels convinced me I was right. Moreover, the advantage of telling my Sea Stories was that didn’t have to rely on anyone to corroborate the details. I could rely solely on my memory.

Q: Which did you find easier to write – fiction or non-fiction?

A: Non-fiction was much easier for me. In fact, I wrote the Sea Stories in record time, as compared to the Cottonwood novels. I didn’t need to invest time and energy creating the stories and antics of fictional characters. I simply recounted what I had observed and remembered as a young man. Moreover, when I was in the Navy, I was very fortunate to have experienced a great number of truly amazing real life adventures and met some most remarkable people as well. In short, I was very well prepared to write the 60 vignettes comprising Sea Stories. And I am very happy these have been recorded in written form for everyone to enjoy.

Q: You were over 60 years old when you began writing your first Cottonwood novel. Why did you wait so long?

A: The answer is quite simple. I was too busy to write books. After leaving the Navy in 1967, I sought employment in a field where I could apply the considerable technical training and job experience I had garnered during my Navy years. Fortunately, my departure from the Navy coincided with a period of great change in the business world. This change was created by the ever-widening use of computers. So I wisely sought a job in what, in those days, was called data processing consulting. Today it would be called information technology or IT consulting. My clients were Fortune 500 companies that were just learning how to make efficient use of computers and how to manage people who developed computer systems and operated the new equipment. To make a long story short, before I became a writer, I spent over 30 years as the owner and operator of a number of IT consulting and software businesses serving large corporations. I traveled all over the world consulting and lecturing on this subject. I didn’t have time to write books.

Q: What caused you to change professions?

A: Johnson & Johnson was one of my most important IT clients. A great proportion of their customers were headquartered in Nashville, home to hundreds of health care businesses. J&J implemented a new marketing system that required their customers to become more sophisticated users of IT. J&J decided to establish an IT consulting business in Nashville. Since I had experience in launching this kind of business, J&J retained me to launch its new business. My wife Joanne and I moved to Nashville, temporarily we thought. When the IT consulting business became successful, J&J decided to move it to their headquarters in New Jersey.

By this time, Joanne and I had fallen in love with Nashville, so we stayed there and purchased a house. The house required a good deal of remodeling that occupied part of my time for about four months. When I mentioned to our daughter Wendy that I had a lot of spare time on my hands, she said, “Dad, why don’t you spend that time writing down those stories you’ve always told us about growing up in Michigan during World War II?” I took her suggestion and became a novelist.

Q: Was becoming a novelist an easy transition for you?

A: Since I had written hundreds of white papers, articles, and training materials during my time in the IT consulting business, I considered myself a good writer. But writing fiction was an altogether new and different experience for me. In truth, I had a very difficult time writing fiction that met my high standards. Cottonwood Summer, my first novel, with a considerable amount of help from Joanne took over three years to complete. And finding a literary agent to represent me took over a year, during which we wrote some 170 individualized proposals to prospective agents. When we finally landed an agent, she insisted that the book be shortened and completely rewritten. In 1999, I had started what I thought would be a part-time hobby of sorts. Five years later, in 2004, my first novel was published.

Q: Did the other four Cottonwood novels take as long to write?

A: Cottonwood Fall and Cottonwood Winter each took just two years from the first word written to publication. Cottonwood Spring only took one year. And Cottonwood Summer '45, an afterthought really, took three years.

Q: How do you spend your typical writing day?

A: My writing day quickly took form and over the course of the 12 years of writing the Cottonwood novels. I seldom deviated from it. The Cottonwood books were all collections of individual scenes which were six to eight pages long. The scenes were arranged into 10 to 12 chapters in each book. Generally, I worked from a rough outline of the story.

I started writing at about 7:00 am and took a short break for lunch. Then I continued until I was exhausted, sometime between 2:00 pm and 4:00 pm. I presented the first draft of the scene to Joanne in the late afternoon. She edited the scene before dinner and returned it to me. The next morning I entered Joanne’s suggested edits and drafted the next scene. This process was repeated regularly for each of the five Cottonwood books.

When writing Sea Stories, I did not follow a plan. I wrote each vignette as it came to mind. When I arranged the vignettes in chronologically order, I discovered an unanticipated problem. I had often repeated the same content in more than one vignette. Editing out the redundant content was a time-consuming process. However, it was worth the effort. In the end, this 280 page book contains 60 vignettes, which are stand-alone stories, or episodes, that occurred between 1956 and 1967 or about 12 years of my life. Most vignettes are two to five pages in length. By writing, editing, and rewriting about ten vignettes a month, the book only took me six months to write. As I mentioned earlier, in each vignette I recounted an actual event from my memory, so the book took a less time to write.

Q: Why did you write Sea Stories?

A: I wasn’t sure of the exact reason I was writing Sea Stories until the book was nearly completed. I worked hard to become the best naval officer I could be. And I believe I succeeded in that endeavor. But, as I describe in the 58th vignette, the Navy let me down. In my mind, I left the Navy, not because I wanted to, but because I felt that I had no other choice. Ironically, as I mention in the book, because of my successes in the business world, leaving the Navy was the best thing that ever happened to me. After 50 years since leaving the Navy, this book has given me the opportunity to tell readers just why I loved the Navy and to tell the Navy how much I gained from my naval service. I am very grateful for all the personal growth and wisdom I derived from my 11 years in the Navy.

Q: How will your shipmates react to Sea Stories?

A: My USS Blandy shipmates will be pleased to learn the truth about the sorry state of our 1,200 psi boilers, as well as the stubborn resistance on the part of high-ranking officials to replace or repair those dangerous boilers, even after one exploded and took the lives of two boilermen. Prior to the explosion, repeated warnings and pleas for help from Blandy’s captain and myself, as engineering officer, were ignored. This pervasive cover-up of a highly hazardous situation led to my decision to leave the Navy.

After viewing the Bedlam Productions documentary describing the dangerous confrontation between the USS Cony and the B-59, the Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear torpedo, many of my fellow Cony shipmates were greatly upset because Bedlam only told the Russian side of the story. Sea Stories tells the Cony side of the story, including our efforts to placate the Russians and to treat them with respect. We even provided them with a large parcel of freshly baked bread and American cigarettes.

Q: What will the reader learn from Sea Stories?

A: Hopefully readers will learn two important things. First, being an exceptional naval officer is a complex, difficult, and often dangerous business. This is especially true for those of us who took our jobs seriously and worked diligently. Second, being committed to the Navy is like being committed to your spouse. Even if your relationship falls on hard times and divorce is the result, 50 years later you may still hold warm feelings in your heart toward that former spouse.

Q: Now that Sea Stories has been published, do you have another book in mind?

A: Yes, I do. But not before fulfilling my obligation to promote Sea Stories. For the next six months or so, I will be on the road giving book talks and attending book events all over the country. It’s exhausting, but I truly enjoy telling people about a book that I consider to be a good one.

I am considering another non-fiction book about the people, places, and events that I experienced during my 30-year career in the IT consulting and training business. I am sure that it will be as interesting to readers as Sea Stories.