Location: Aliceville, Alabama
General Description: The primary purpose of the Aliceville Museum in downtown Aliceville, is to document the history of the World War II POW camp at Aliceville from 1942-1945. Of the four major POW camps in Alabama during the war in Opelika, Fort McClellan, and Fort Rucker, as well as, Aliceville, the camp at Aliceville was the largest housing 6000 POWs. Although the camp initially housed all ranks of German POWs, the limited opportunity for farmwork in the area for the enlisted soldiers, caused a reshuffling in the state. Aliceville became a camp for officers and NCO which by the Geneva Convention could not be forced to work and many chose no to. This did not mean they were not busy with work inside the camp with landscaping and building projects. This also left a lot of time for sports and the arts. The camp became known for its sculptures, paintings, and woodworking and nightly entertainment of plays and musical concerts were common. In addition, the POWs printed their own newspaper, cooked all their meals, did their own laundry, and all the other activities of daily life. Especially after the horrors of war in Europe and North Africa, the German POWs found their internment to be some of the best years of their lives. For many, after they left Aliceville, they still had years working for the English or French rebuilding their economies before being allowed to return to Germany which was destroyed by the war and East Germany was occupied by the Russians. For most, their time at Aliceville was much better then their families faced in Germany.
1) The museum consists of three exhibits, the most important being memorabilia from the POW camp. Starting with the short film about the camp that includes interviews of Aliceville citizens that worked in the camp and a number of former POWs and then continuing discussing the history with the resident historian was fascinating. The organization of the artifacts need some serious work, as they tend to be just randomly displayed throughout the museum. However, there are a number of interesting gems to be found by taking the time to look. There are some actual photographs of some of the plays they performed, as well as, examples of the published newspaper. Scattered among the daily items from the time are some great examples of the wood carvings. Located in the courtyard are a few of the sculptures done in the camp on display.
2) The most interesting story told by the historian related to the arrival of the first 500 POWs from the point of view of the Germans. They arrived by train after being captured in North Africa and spending months in internment camps and on board ship so they arrived hungry, dirty, and scarred to death. They had been told not to be captured by the Americans who were most likely to kill them. To a man they expected to be taken out into the woods and shot. So when they arrived in Aliceville and lined up to march to the camp they expected the crowds lining the streets to attack them. Obviously this did not happen as the townfolk were simply curious to see these “elite” German troops of Rommel they had heard so much about. They were shocked to see instead half starved young men and old officers that looked to be utterly defeated. After marching to the camp and getting settled in, the Camp Commander realized that they must be hungry and ordered them to be fed even though it was very late, sometime after midnight. The meal consisted mostly of white bread and peanut butter, which the Germans had never seen before, but it was still the best meal they had seen since being captured. Figuring they were going to be marched and killed in the morning, they considered this to be their “last meal” and ate everything in sight. Over the next few weeks, they realized they were not going to be killed and began getting everything organized in the camp.
2) Since the camp was built to be temporary there is very little remaining of the camp itself except for some foundations and roadways outside of town. Except for the maps and some photographs of the remnants, visitors are not encourage to seek out the actual location.
3) In addition to the section devoted to the POW camp, there is also the bottling line of the Aliceville Coca-cola Bottling Plant that operated from 1948-1978. Since the museum is housed in the bottling plant and the plant had been used for storage seen it was closed down, it is one of the few old bottling plants still in existence. The Coca-Cola exhibit contains the complete and intact bottling equipment just as it was installed when the building was constructed. The machinery includes a massive, once state-of-the-art, Miller-Hydro bottle washer and a 20 valve bottle filler and crowner. Some of the machinery, which was relocated to this facility from an older bottling plant nearby, was in use before and during WWII.
4) Across the courtyard are exhibits commemorating the history of Aliceville and memorabilia from World War I and World War II. Once again there are many gems to be found if the exhibits are examined in detail.