History professor’s book and talk inspire WWII historic marker

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October 06, 2020

A company known by generations for its baby food was slightly more than 20 years old when the fates of German World War II prisoners of war, the city of Fremont, Mich., and the Gerber Products Company intertwined.

University of Detroit Mercy History Professor Gregory Sumner brought new life and city pride to this historic partnership through research that led to his most recent book, Michigan POW Camps in World War II.

Sumner delivered a talk and discussion at the Fremont Area District Library last fall which revealed that German POWs were used to alleviate the labor shortage that threatened war-time agriculture production, food processing and the future of economic prosperity.

“The story of the Fremont POWs, like those of prison camps around the state of Michigan during WWII, is an inspiring one that deserves to be remembered and celebrated,” said Sumner.

Inspired by Summer’s research and presentation, Fremont residents Jim Merkel and Jack Butterick, led a fundraising effort to create a historical marker that now sits near the Gerber plant. Sumner spoke at the dedication this past September that honored the 295 POWs who arrived in Freemont in 1944 and helped keep Gerber and the area farms going in a time of great labor shortage in America.

“I’m gratified that the city seized on my suggestion and made the marker happen,” said Sumner. “I hope it will arouse the curiosity and interest of young people for generations to come.”

Text of historic marker

Fremont, MI – WWII

In 1943 there was a labor shortage in the United States, including Fremont, which threatened agricultural production, food processing, the war effort, and post-war prosperity. 

In March 1944 with approval from Gerber Product Company’s President Frank Gerber, the Gerber employees’ labor unions, the Fremont City Commission, and Chamber of Commerce endorsed a plan to bring German prisoners to Fremont to supplement the critical local labor shortage.   

 In May 1944 the first of 295 prisoners arrived to establish a camp on Gerber’s property and begin work in the Gerber plant and on farms in the area. Gerber and other employers paid the US Army for the prisoners’ work, and prisoners received script that they could use to buy personal items. 

By October 1944 a large cement-block building was built by prisoners to replace the tents and become one of only four winter housing units for 6,000 prisoners in Michigan.  

The Fremont camp closed in October 1945. With the aid of prisoners, agricultural activities were accomplished, Gerber production remained high, and post-war jobs were preserved for Fremont area residents.

About the book

Michigan POW Camps in World War II
Published by The History Press 2018

During World War II, Michigan became a temporary home to six thousand German and Italian POWs. At a time of home front labor shortages, they picked fruit in Berrien County, harvested sugar beets in the Thumb, cut pulpwood in the Upper Peninsula and maintained parks and other public spaces in Detroit. The work programs were not flawless and not all of the prisoners were cooperative, but many of the men established enduring friendships with their captors. Author Gregory Sumner tells the story of these detainees and the ordinary Americans who embodied our highest ideals, even amid a global war.

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