By Garrett Yarbrough, EC Scholar sophomore
The last orange rays of the setting sun flashed intermittently between the library bookshelves as I weaved briskly between them. I glanced fervently between the jagged paper with a haphazardly scrawled call number and the tiny labels on the spines. My bloodshot eyes moved down the row of dusty books, glancing at each in turn from beneath my furrowed brow. Aha! Hours and hours sifting through dusty books–through all four floors of the library–and leads that ended up deader than disco, and finally that “Aha!” that I’ve been waiting for, no, digging for.
No matter the hours hunched over a worn library keyboard with the T’s and S’s worn off, or the wild goose chases for one particular book that happened to be on exchange half the state away, that one moment of longing astonishment is always worth it. As a History and English major, biology doesn’t get my gears going and I don’t have much chemistry with atoms. I’ll tell you though, that one fact on page two hundred and eight-four smack-dab in the middle of a soldier’s memoir from 1944 will get my engines up and ready to dive head first into the newspapers from his hometown, and from there…what do you know? I’m halfway through a research project.
This semester, I’ve had the privilege to begin my foray into history with an in-depth research regarding the subject of the treatment of German Prisoners of War in North Carolina contrasted with how the American guards behaved towards the German prisoners in the Rheinwiesenlager, the Rhine Meadow camps. The fact that German POWs were held in North Carolina camps is not often discussed—or even known on some accounts—nor the fact that Americans held German soldiers from April to September of 1945 in twelve POW camps along the Rhine River in Germany.
Naturally, knowledge of German soldiers living down the road from the local school and half a mile from your neighbor’s farm wouldn’t be taken kindly nor calmly by the nationalistic people of rural North Carolina. Neither would the vindictive treatment of the German soldiers by Americans, living in barbed wire cages in the Ruhr Valley, including the lack of food and supplies (although that couldn’t be help as a massive shortage plagued occupied Europe). Heck, German U-boats (submersibles) patrolled up and down the North Carolina coast throughout the war, and the first German POWs sent to America were from a U-boat sunk off our coast. The captured soldiers were then promptly sent to Fort Bragg and Camp Butner, Fort Bragg holding the first POWs on American soil during World War II.
In the case of unfavorable (to some audiences) history, perspectives vary wildly in the historical community, and selective research is cherry-picked to be presented to the public. This is where the most interesting part of historical research comes in—and where the learning magic happens. You can’t trust everything you read, and my project touches on this. My research is on comparative history, historiography, and personal memoirs. Reporting from these events tend to be filtered through a biased lens, depending on motive, theses, nationalities, and other background context. Learning to properly research, be a skeptic, and analyze the clues and sources left behind by researchers are skills that can be applied to any writing for any field. Being thorough and critical thinking are a must for any kind of reporting or research.
Not only do I get to learn the ins and outs of my prospective field, I get to speak to other prominent historians that have earned their stripes…a position I hope to be in in the near future. With the help of ECU staff and that of the devoted Honors College, I’ve gotten to speak to several historians specializing in naval history and the fates of these Germans. Through the personal archives of one of these historians, I’ve gotten to see the humanity and generosity that the North Carolinians treated German POWs, which resulted in fond memories in most cases and their emigration to the United States after the war.
“What could possibly be better than tracking down each and every tidbit available for your research project? What ecstatic experience could hope to top it?” you’re all wondering, arriving back home from our brief but breath-taking adventure to History Land. The payoff for all that arduous work wafts off the page in the hot ink, you sitting back with disheveled hair and peering over each footnote, knowing that you held that story, and that story came from someone who crawled out of the mud and barbed wire cages and into the brisk autumn German air of 1945.
The alluring part of studying history is the realization that the story doesn’t stop after you print out that bibliography. The present only lasts for a moment, and then it’s history. History is made every day, and with what I’ve learned from my research project, more stories unfold every day as a result of the past. With that said, I can tell you without a doubt that I’m banking on hunting down each of those stories that I can get my hands on.