Prisoner of War exhibits hosted at Red Deer museum

Helping to honour the meanings of Remembrance Day, the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery (MAG) is hosting two exhibits focused on the prisoner of war experience.

Prisoner of War: Stories from Red Deer and District, which opens Oct. 29, highlights stories of local servicemen that survived detention as prisoners of war in Europe and Japan, said Michael Dawe, curator of history.

Amazingly, 29 local men lived to tell about their POW experiences. Most were held in German camps while two were captured by the Japanese.

“It’s remarkable. You have 29 people from this area in those camps and they all survived,” said Dawe. “You have a community of about 3,000 people in the City of Red Deer at the time and about 3,000 people in the surrounding rural areas. Twenty-nine men is a significant number of young men from the community that were prisoners of war. It shows you that in the community, during the war, pretty well everybody would have known one or several or these people be they relatives, friends or neighbours.”

The exhibition will also feature items from the MAG’s military collection, the Red Deer & District Archives, plus items, photos and journals loaned from the community.

As Dawe says, the POW experience was horrendous with captives usually receiving extremely poor nutrition and enduring grueling forced labour.

“The experience of Canadians in Japanese prisoner of war camps was truly horrific,” he said. “They were starved, they were literally worked to death. I don’t think anybody can really understand what it was like for the Japanese POWs because those who survived – their physical conditions were just desperate. There were frequent beatings, torture and starvation.”

German POWs did receive packages from the Red Cross, which helped to mitigate the hardship to a degree. Items such as chocolate and smokes could also be exchanged for things like toothbrushes or soap from cooperative guards also.

Also included in the exhibition is local POW Robert Hill’s diary, recently retrieved from Red Deer’s landfill.

“Because of poor nutrition, he gradually lost his eyesight. When he couldn’t keep up the journal anymore, he had other guys do it.”

Meanwhile, now on display at the MAG is For you the war is over. Second World War POW Experiences, a touring exhibit organized in partnership by the Galt Museum & Archives, Lethbridge and The Military Museums.

Artifacts from a variety of museums and archives and those contributed by surviving Canadian and German POWs, veterans’ guards, area residents and family members are brought together for the first time to tell the story.

More than 34,000 German prisoners of war were sent to Canada during the Second World War, and there were POW camps located in Kananaskis, Medicine Hat, Wainwright and Lethbridge.

In Lethbridge alone, Camp 133 was designed to hold 12,500 prisoners, nearly doubling the population of the city.

The exhibit also explores what was it like to be a prisoner of war in Alberta and in Germany during the Second World War. It also examines what was it like for Canadian guards who worked with the prisoners.

Rory Cory, senior curator at the Military Museums of Calgary, will speak on the subject during the opening reception for both exhibitions, which is set for Nov. 6th from 2 to 4 p.m.

Both exhibits close on Jan.15, 2012.