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A secret in my backyard

10/10/2013

Would you believe that there are 29 German and Italian POWs from World War II buried in Anniston? Before I moved into Cane Creek Estates in Lenlock, I wouldn’t have.

I moved to Lenlock from my hometown of Pell City a little over a year ago. After walking through one of the apartments across from Walmart on Highway 21, I told the property manager I wanted to move in.

I liked the old wooden floors in the bedrooms upstairs, and the landing in the staircase from the first floor to the second. But I didn’t stumble across the best part of the apartment complex until a few days later.

I decided to go for a run. I needed the exercise, and it would be good to familiarize myself with the neighborhood. The complex sits on Shipley Road. I left my apartment and turned out onto it.

Shipley Road, and all of the land that Cane Creek Estates sits on, was once a part of Fort McClellan, one of the largest military installations in the country during WWII. I followed the road past my complex’s playground and walking track. Past that, Shipley Road rises sharply and curves away to the left up a wooded hill.

I kept to the sidewalk, feet pounding away at the cement as I struggled up the hill. It seemed to keep rising and curving away to the left no matter how many steps forward I took. I finally reached the top and stopped to catch my breath.

I saw a black metal fence around a plot at the top of yet another hill and decided to check it out. When I got close enough to read the cement and stone sign, I stopped short.

“German/Italian POW Cemetery,” it read. Neat rows of twenty-nine white headstones sat in the greenest, softest grass I’d ever seen, shaded by two giant, old oak trees.

I opened the gate and walked beyond the fence. It was cooler underneath the trees. Names like Josef Kohl, Vincenzo Vernacchio and Resorie Spera were inscribed on the marble headstones. A large black and white iron cross monument hunkered in the grass at the back end of the cemetery.

I didn’t spend long there among the graves, but after I left, the graveyard stayed on my mind. It’s both a solemn and beautiful place at the same time. It’s mysterious. How did Brigadier General Hans Schuberth of the German Army come to be buried in Anniston, Alabama?

The answer, while interesting, proved to be less exciting than the Nazi-secret-agents-discovered-in-America scenario my sister’s imagination concocted.

The United States took on 425,000 POWs captured by Allied forces during WWII, first from North Africa and then later from Europe.

Newspaper coverage and public knowledge of that were kept to a minimum in order to stop people freaking out over the nearly half a million Nazis interred at POW camps in their backyards.

In all, there are 840 German prisoners of war buried in 43 graveyards in the United States, mostly in the South. They died of illnesses and accidents while WWII was still underway in Europe.

Now all that remains is the cemetery, a peaceful place I like to go to read or to eat lunch on nice days.

Germans honor the memory of men who died fighting for their country on “Volkstrauertag,” a day of mourning in November.

Maybe next month someone will choose to honor the sacrifice of the 29 men on the hilltop in Anniston, Alabama.

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