Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/24/2010

WWII POWs, Sugar Beets, and Glenn Beck’s Anti-Christian Megalomania

Every kid growing up in western Nebraska in the ‘50s knew about Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. Scottsbluff school kids were alternately terrified or thought it was nifty (we didn’t know “cool” or “awesome”) that we had them in our back yards (1). That seems wildly incongruous even now, fifty years later. The gentle hills of western Nebraska harboring the most dangerous weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in the history of civilization! That was not Nebraska’s only martial secret.

The Enola Gay, the (in)famous airplane from which Hiroshima was bombed with the forerunner of those bombs in silos near Scottsbluff, was built in Omaha, where I went to high school fifteen years after that plane was built at the Glenn Martin Aircraft Company (2). But even the Enola Gay in its notoriety is not the strangest connection to war in Nebraska. Everyone knew the command of the Air Force was at Offutt Air Force Base, and the Martin company was in Omaha. Air Force planes were built and stationed at Omaha every day.

Nebraska’s strangest war connection was far less spectacular than B-29 Superfortress bombers and far more secretive. Close by Scottsbluff (I’ve never been able to find exactly where) was a Prisoner of War camp for German and Italian soldiers captured in World War II. A most exotic phenomenon. We didn’t know much about the POW camps. I first heard of them in about 1958 when I went to Baptist summer camp in Chadron State Park (about 100 miles from Scottsbluff). We heard about the POWs because that camp is close to Ft. Robinson, where the largest contingent of POWs was held.

It is almost incomprehensible that we knew about the missile silos planted all around as protection (protection? with Soviet missiles pointed at us to destroy the missiles in case of nuclear war). We knew the importance of Offutt Air Force Base—we even knew the Enola Gay was built there. But some 12,000 Nazis had been in the backyards of the good Republican citizens of Scottsbluff and in satellite camps at places like Bayard—in the shadow of Chimney Rock—and no one seemed to know or care about them (3). Perhaps they cared and were so traumatized they never talked about them.

Made in Omaha (Bellevue)

The citizenry had little reason to have been traumatized. Of the 12,000 prisoners in Nebraska (all told, 450,000 POWs were in the United States), only 17 escaped, and all but six had been captured by 1951. The citizens were not afraid of escaped Nazis (all the POWs were shipped home in 1946, and the last escapee surrendered in 1985).

The citizenry who knew about them had great reason to welcome the POWs: they were put to work in the sugar beet fields surrounding Scottsbluff to replace farmers drafted for the war.

I intended  to write today explaining  how I came by my Marxist ideas of Social Justice—see the  megalomaniacally un-American vitriol of John Beck calling me a Marxist (4)—growing up among the good conservative citizens of Nebraska whose support for the American military is legendary. Perhaps my morning’s thought has been derailed, but my disorganized hypergraphic brain sees a clear connection between my Nebraska childhood and Beck’s accusation of Marxism.

The good Christian folk of Nebraska in the ‘50s and ‘60s understood something Glenn Beck apparently doesn’t. Those missiles and that B-29 and those POW camps were serving a purpose: protecting Glenn Beck’s right to act like an asshole (5) any time he wants to. And those good Republican (a huge majority in Scottsbluff), good Christian (a small minority, I fear, in Scottsbluff) folk taught their children two attributes that Glenn Beck’s community in Idaho apparently did not teach him: honesty and fairness in using one’s rights.

I left Scottsbluff in 1960 and Omaha in 1963 bound for college. Before then I had the good fortune to attend a conference at the American Baptist Assembly at Green Lake, Wisconsin. Theologians led us in studying the meaning of the christian faith we had been taught. Even today I am guided by the life-changing understanding of my received religion I found there. The sum of it came from Hebrews 11:8, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going,” and Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I’m not getting into a theological debate with Glenn Beck. The lesson the Biblical scholars taught us was based on the Hebrew word for “faith.” It is not a noun. It is a verb. One does not “have” faith. One “faiths.” Abraham faithed enough to walk humbly with his God. I don’t “faith” much these days. But all my life I’ve set out, not knowing where I am going. I try to walk there humbly, and along the way do justice and love kindness.

Those good conservative Republican christians in Nebraska taught me that my little personal beliefs are not, in the long run, of much importance. Belief in some version of christianity was (at least as far as we children knew) somewhat universal. Belief that our government was taking care of us (we had the proof of that all around) was absolutely universal.

Naturally, I can’t speak for anyone else who grew up in Nebraska in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I can tell Glenn Beck what I learned that apparently he did not growing up among the Catholics of Idaho. Things are not always what they seem. The home on the range is likely to hide Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. A little city along the Missouri River may be the manufacturing site of the carrier of the most lethal weapon ever used by mankind. And the guy harvesting the sugar beets to make the sweetness you used in your morning coffee (oh, I forgot, Mormons don’t drink coffee) may have been a Nazi.

But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself (Leviticus 19:34)

But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself (Leviticus 19:34)

I don’t understand the kind of vitriol it takes for anyone to say that another person’s faithing is something despicable (or for anyone else to believe him). I often question the sincerity and/or spirituality of some christians, but I refrain from calling them Nazis. What the good people of western Nebraska gave me is willingness to accept both what one sees and what one does not see. Those missiles may be hiding underground.

The SOCIAL JUSTICE belief of the people I grew up among was based in faith as strong as death. And it prompted them to Marxist undertakings such as maintaining a community center for the Mexican Nationals who flooded our county every summer under the Guest Worker program that provided work and opportunity for millions —and, in the process, got the sugar beets harvested without POWs. That’s my version of SOCIAL JUSTICE.
(2) Chapman, Suzann, ed. “The Smithsonian and the Enola Gay: The Airplane.”  Airforce-Magazine. Airforce-Magazine. com. 4/27/09. Web. 21 July 2010.
(3)  “POWs Far From the Battleground.” Nebraska Department of Education. Web. 23 Jul 2010.
(4) Jones, Serene. “An Open Letter to Glenn Beck: We’re Sending You Bibles!” The Huffington Post. July 19, 2010. Web. 20 Jul 2010.
(5) Don’t get all self-righteous or Fundamentalist christian on me. “Asshole” is a perfectly good word. It’s in the dictionary meaning, “a stupid, mean, or contemptible person.” I’m not sure how any thinking or fair-minded person could ever think of Beck as anything other than ACTING an asshole (notice, I did not say he “is” one), but in this instance it would be well to find an even stronger word for his ideas and behavior. “asshole.” –noun. Vulgar. Slang. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. Web. 24 Jul 2010.

Home, home on the (missile-firing) range.

Home, home on the (missile-firing) range.


  1. Family members have told me the Nazi prisoner camp near Scottsbluff was on the site of the airport.

    Jon Wilson



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