Thursday, October 12, 2023

Story #7: Stories from Camp Frederick: German World War II POWs in Frederick, Maryland, Part 2

October is German-American Heritage Month and one of the topics I'm contacted about frequently is the history of German World War II POW camps in Maryland. I studied German and History at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, where I researched and have subsequently written several articles and papers on this topic. I'm sharing this article series over the course of four weeks, continuing this week with "Life in the POW Camp" and "POWs at Camp Frederick," and next week with "Personal Accounts and Memories" and "One Soldier's Story: Erich Pahlow." Variations of this article series have appeared in Frederick Magazine, German-American Journal, and on the German Pulse website. I look forward to resharing it now, with revisions, and keeping this dialogue, research, and these stories alive:

Life in the POW Camp

Life in the POW camp could be strenuous, but prisoners also enjoyed some freedom. There were strict restrictions on the workday of the prisoners, ensuring their productivity but providing some rest and downtime to maintain them as effective workers. POWs could work no more than ten hours a day and be away from the camp for no more than twelve hours a day. In many cases, contractors were responsible for providing transportation, and the prisoners had a right to a lunch break and were not to be physically mistreated in any way.

The POWs would make an average of 80 cents per day that they were allowed to keep—the pay already earned by a German private—as compared to a normal civilian worker who would receive four or five dollars a day. This provided at least three dollars a day to the Maryland treasury, in the long run essentially allowing the POW program to pay for itself.

Interestingly, not only did the Maryland treasury benefit from POW labor, but prisoner labor created a 35 percent increase in Maryland’s tomato crop in 1945 alone. A 40 percent increase in Maryland’s overall agricultural productivity during the war years was also attributed to the work of the German POWs. At the national level, from June to December 1945, German and Italian POWs in Maryland saved the U.S government about five million dollars.

Old Camp Road on the former site of Camp Frederick.
Read more here
The Geneva Convention also declared that POWs must receive the same quality of diet as the captor’s soldiers. The diet in a Maryland POW camp consisted of an average of 3,500 calories a day and included rolled oats, milk, raised bread, and coffee for breakfast, and vegetables, bread, fruit, and water for lunch. Dinner might be soup, vegetables, salad, bread, and tea. Typical activities that the prisoners were permitted to participate in were athletic, cultural, educational, and religious. Some camps even formed small orchestras. POWs at Camp Frederick even leveled a field on which to play soccer.

Prisoners were generally well treated and well behaved. In at least one instance at Frederick, a guard who had recently returned from service in Germany beat some prisoners severely with the butt of his rifle after the prisoners teased him. Former camp guard Charles P. Wales, on other hand, attested, “I never, “I never heard of any time when a gun was even pointed at a prisoner at the camp.” He explained that by the time he got to be a guard at the camp, the war was over and most of the men did not want to fight, but simply wanted to go home. In addition, there were 400 prisoners among 45 American guards who had received little training in handling the prisoners and could easily have been overtaken.

Some of the prisoners—especially Nazi sympathizers—became violent towards other prisoners or tried to escape. Most prisoners who managed to duck out of the camp guards’ sight and run off were recaptured within 24 hours. An article appeared in the Frederick News-Post on January 4, 1945, concerning the notification of the public in the event of a prisoner’s escape, in which the mayor declared that he was “100 percent in accord with the suggestion that the community be promptly informed of any such escape.”

Some daring escapes did occur in Maryland. Two prisoners at Camp Frederick who had managed to secure unmarked clothes cut through the fence and walked backward away from the camp, eventually catching the bus at Braddock Heights. The driver was suspicious and called the police, and the two POWs were captured in Hagerstown. One of them was Peter Siegfried Muetzel, who preferred to escape to Cincinnati rather than go home to the Russian sector of Germany where his home had been destroyed.

The most dramatic escape occurred when the 21-year-old, English-speaking Hermann Pospiech eluded the FBI for five months after walking out of Camp Somerset in southern Maryland. He managed to get all the way to New York City, where he was found with a Social Security Card in his name and a U.S. Army discharge pin.

Strikes were also rare and mostly happened when the prisoners found their work to be too difficult or demanding—some protested because they felt their work was too closely related to the war effort, and therefore, in violation of the Geneva Convention. Others did not want to lift or remove objects that were too heavy, protesting tasks such as clearing out large trees in the winter. To deal with this problem, the “No Work, No Eat” policy of World War I was adopted by the provost marshal’s office, restricting an uncooperative prisoner’s diet to bread and water.

A 1944 article from a Maryland newspaper entitled “War Prisoners Wouldn’t Work: Those Here Put On Bread, Water Diet” describes this punishment being inflicted upon prisoners in “a camp near Frederick, Md.,” for protesting and refusing to work. Apparently, the tactic worked as leaders of the camp received “a promise to work [the next] day.”

Due to the success of the first two stages of the POW program, in 1944 the War Department developed a new project as part of its third and final phase of development: changing the political views of the prisoners from National Socialism to political democracy. The project was called the Prisoner of War Special Projects Division (POWSPD) and especially took off in 1945 after it was clear that the Third Reich was destined to fall. Since the Geneva Code did not allow the POWSPD to force its ideas upon the prisoners, the program was voluntary, and was euphemistically entitled “Intellectual Diversion.”

It should be stated that many of the prisoners did not support Adolph Hitler or the fascist regime in Germany, and only an estimated eight to ten percent of the total German POW population were known to be adamant Nazi sympathizers. Some of the more militant Nazis were known to harass less committed soldiers. Others burned copies of Der Ruf (The Call), an anti-Nazi newspaper written by German POWs across the United States and overseen by the POWSPD. It was based in Rhode Island at the German POW camp, Camp Kearney.

Those prisoners who refused to integrate into regular camp life were placed in segregated camps with each other, one of which was in Oklahoma. The POWSPD program chose to focus more instead on anti-Nazis and political moderates, “stimulating individualism among them and eroding uncritical habits.” One method used to help transform the prisoners psychologically was to show them graphic images, such as piles of naked, starved corpses, or to hang up posters with these images throughout the camp. Der Ruf also included haunting images and detailed information about the concentration camps in Europe.

One major part of the political indoctrination of the prisoners was the POWSPD’s dispatch of Assistant Executive Officers (AEOs) to the campsites to discuss and compare the histories of the United States and Germany. These AEOs attempted to convince prisoners that the German past had been riddled with failures due to their governments, while the American commitment to democracy had helped it develop so successfully. They hoped to instill in the prisoners the idea that democracy was the best option for rebuilding Germany after the war.

POWs at Camp Frederick

Above is a general overview of the camp life and activities that many German POWs in Maryland experienced. Now Camp Frederick itself will be specifically discussed, with information both supporting and adding to that which was previously presented.

In the fall of 1944, the September 4 issue of The Post announced in a brief article that the former Civilian Conservation Corps camp, which was built in 1933 and located just west of Frederick, would soon become home to about 350 German POWs. This was followed by another small article shortly after, which informed citizens that 30 POWs were already on-site preparing tents for the camp, and it would open within two weeks under the command of Captain Eugene Messner. A large crowd reportedly gathered to watch the prisoners arrive by train and be ushered onto buses that headed to Camp Frederick, located off old Route 40.

The men, whose average ages ranged from 17 to 45, were mostly privates and non-commissioned officers from the Afrika Corps. Many had been initially captured by the British troops, but Britain—dependent at the time upon imports—was unable to feed or support its POW population, and so many ships carrying supplies or troops from England to the U.S. delivered prisoners as well. They would be staying in large six-man tents on the four-acre plot of land that had formerly belonged to the Klein Farm and is today a residential neighborhood on the fringes of the supermarket, gas station, and restaurant filled west end of the “Golden Mile” on Route 40.

The public was told in an article in The Post in 1979, entitled “What’s in the Name? Old Camp Road,” that the average stay of the men would be anywhere from two weeks to over a month, and the camp was cleverly termed a “detainment center used to hold captured soldiers until the necessary papers could be processed for their return home.”

Also, according to the article, the men’s daily activities consisted of being transported from the camp at 7 a.m. to a nearby farm and being picked up again around 5 p.m. A single guard might watch over five to ten prisoners while they worked. Former camp guard Charles P. Wales explained that “when only a few prisoners were sent out for work there was usually no guard sent along with them. Larger groups were sent with a guard.”

There is some evidence that suggests that the seemingly low-key publicity surrounding the coming of the POWs continued throughout its existence until well after the war was over. According to “What’s in the Name? Old Camp Road,” the camp had maintained a low profile throughout its operation and “some senior citizens [could not] recall its existence. The only Fredericktonians to come in direct contact with the camp or its detainees were a handful of civilian drivers and a dozen or so farmers.” This may be exaggerated, as many of the family members and friends of farmers who hired the POWs encountered them on a regular basis.

At any rate, in 1967, a little more than 20 years after the war ended, a sudden surge of interest in the German POWs hit Frederick after an article in The News on February 15, 1967, spoke of a “frantic search for the location of any German prisoner of war camp” in Frederick. The article, entitled “Where, Oh Where, Was That German POW Camp?” was in response to a letter the paper received in 1949 from a former POW, Peter Siegfried Muetzel. The letter, recovered 20 years after Muetzel’s escape from Camp Frederick and recapture in Hagerstown, expressed Muetzel’s gratitude to the people of Frederick, who he explained were “extremely kind to him.” According to the article, several historians were also questioned about the camp, and “several people said there were several camps in the area,” but oddly, they did not know or remember the location of the camp.

The next day, the newspaper printed an article called “County Residents Recall Camp For POWs Here,” about how several residents actually did remember the camp and its inhabitants, including Cyril Klein, whose father had owned the land that the camp was located on. Another article was printed the same day, called “‘Lost Prisoner Camp Was Located Near City,” and claimed that because of “nearly 100 phone calls from interested citizens,” the location of the camp could finally be identified as off old Route 40 near the Klein Farm. Clearly many citizens remembered Camp Frederick after all.

The day after that, February 17, The Post ran an article with photos in response to inquiries about the “now dismantled camp,” called “POW Camp Revisited 20 Years Later.” Author Nelson Brooks actually ventured out to the location of the former camp and discovered an empty pasture with a series of “concrete floors minus any walls or shelter facilities.” He also noted inlaid brick walkways, old rusty nails lying in the grass, latrines with household items tossed into them, and old shoes. The most interesting artifact he found was a six-foot semicircle carved into the concrete depicting a man swinging an axe at one end, and a man with a pick on the other, both with a ball chained to their legs. He found no sign of a 600-foot deep well rumored to have been used on the property, but did locate a dam across the creek between the camp and the highway, with a large metal pipe that once carried water from the stream to a nearby pond.

The next day a new article, “POW Camp Near City Part of Fort Meade,” was published, which announced that the paper had gotten in touch with Pentagon spokesman Charles Romanus, of the Reference Branch of the Military History Department at the Pentagon. Romanus confirmed the already obvious existence of Camp Frederick and asserted that 336 prisoners alone were sent there in 1946.

Why, 20 years later and not sooner, was such interest in the POWs rekindled? It seems that in spite of many citizens’ general lack of knowledge of the camps, there were many people who did come in contact with the POWs and who had not forgotten about them. As stated before, many more civilians than anticipated had observed, worked with, or were host to the prisoners.

"Stories from Camp Frederick: German World War II POWs in Frederick, Maryland," copyright 2023 Amelia Cotter (variations of this article series first appeared in Frederick Magazine and German Pulse in 2012, and in German-American Journal in 2009)

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