SHELL ROCK — Linda Betsinger McCann began her career as a registered nurse.
Today, she writes about Iowa history. She has penned a staggering 41 books, including more than a dozen on Iowa’s history on such topics as Prohibition, the Civilian Conservation Corps and a “Lost” series about towns that disappeared from counties like Black Hawk, Bremer, Butler and Linn.
Her latest book, “Prisoners of War in Iowa,” traces the camps that housed German, Italian and Japanese POWs sent to Iowa during World War II.
“I grew up around Waverly, so I knew about the POW camp in Waverly, and ones in Eldora and Algona. It surprises people to find out they were virtually all over the state,” said McCann, a native Iowan.
She will be making a series of speaking engagements in Cedar Falls, Dike and Denver in late October and November.
Roughly 25,000 of the 425,000 enemy soldiers sent to the United States as prisoners of war were housed in Iowa. Algona and Clarinda were the main camps, but there were branches scattered around the state near such communities as Waverly, Eldora, Wapello, Audubon, Toledo and many others.
The state was in dire need of farm laborers and factory workers for canneries and processing plants. Also, agricultural states like Iowa had increased food production to feed the military and citizens. That help came from the federal government in the form of POWs.
McCann’s research took her to museums, public libraries, newspapers and historical societies throughout Iowa. She also met with one-on-one with individuals who shared their personal recollections about the POW camps.
“People were wonderful about setting me up with people, and sometimes phone calls came out of the blue,” recalled McCann, who spent three years researching and writing the book.
About 15 years ago, she became interested in genealogy, and while climbing her family tree, discovered she was a descendant of Shell Rock’s founder. Later McCann helped establish the community’s historical society and was promptly elected president.
A history lover since sixth grade, McCann began to research town history and writing about what she learned.
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That attracted a publisher, leading to the release of numerous books. Her recent books, “Prohibition in Eastern Iowa” and the POW book have been released by Tandem Publishing Group.
McCann admitted she was deeply touched by several POW stories she heard in her research. “The first was about a German prisoner at the Eldora camp who told a farmer where he was working that his brother lived in Iowa, but he’d never met him because he’d emigrated to the U.S. before the prisoner was born.”
The farmer tracked down the POW’s brother, and on a Sunday afternoon during visiting hours, the brothers finally met. “The prisoner wrote afterwards that the luckiest thing that had happened to him was being taken prisoner and brought to Iowa where he finally met his brother,” McCann explained.
Another story was about a prisoner in the Eldora camp when he was returned to a divided Germany after the war. “He was in East Berlin, and people didn’t know if they’d wake up in the morning. He sat his family down and said, ‘If we have to run, if we get separated, we will reunite in Eldora, Iowa.”
Algona’s popular nativity scene of 65 half life-sized cement figures was built by German POWs at Camp Algona.
The prisoners chose to leave it in Algona, McCann said, “saying they had arrived in Algona during the darkest days of their lives, as enemies, but left as friends.”
The author is currently working on a book about Iowa’s “Rosie the riveters.” She has interviewed 30 women to date.
“I’m always surprised by how little people know about Iowa’s history, especially young people. I keep writing for my family, for my grandkids and future generations,” McCann said.
Next summer, she plans to collaborate on writing historical fiction with her granddaughter, Patricia, and another granddaughter, Brianna, will design the cover for McCann’s next book.
Her books are available at the Grout Museum in Waterloo, Cedar Falls Historical Society Victorian Home and Carriage House Museum and Barn Happy, both in Cedar Falls; and the Denver Public Library; or by calling (800) 765-1690.