Friday, October 20, 2023

Story #7: Stories from Camp Frederick: German World War II POWs in Frederick, Maryland, Part 3

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 "Personal Accounts and Memories" and "One Soldier's Story: Erich Pahlow," and next week with the "Conclusion" and "Bibliography." Variations of this article series have appeared in Frederick MagazineGerman-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:

Personal Accounts and Memories

Several personal letters, interviews, and articles survive which give various insights into what it must have been like to be a German POW in Frederick, or what it was like to encounter or work with one. These experiences represent a broad array of perspectives, from the POWs themselves to the residents of Frederick who found them to be nice young men and good workers, or a threatening menace to their community.

According to Judge Robert Clapp, Jr., a soldier during the war who had kept up with local events, “people in general were very receptive to the idea of the German prisoners being here.” Catherine Handley, wife of a foreman at the Stoner and Powell lime plant at Fountain Rock on Biggs Ford Road, stated, “People were a little intimidated about the prisoners coming here, but we really needed manpower to have that lime when farmers came for it, or to load on the train. But we found they were just people. They were good workers, and after a while there was no apprehension.”

“They were big, blond German boys. Too bad we didn’t take any pictures,” said Middletown resident Betty Powell, who grew up on a farm where the prisoners had worked.

POWs were transported to and from the fields by farmers,
as in this photo of prisoners at Fort Meade. Read more here.
Cyril Klein said they “had a well 600 feet deep and they still didn’t have enough water.” He also remarked that the men were happy to have been “captured by the Americans, rather than by the Russians…They were deathly afraid of the Russians. They were also deathly afraid of airplanes. Every time a plane would go over, they would all stop what they were doing and watch it.”

Dr. Howard Ash spoke of a sick call every day at 4 p.m. Dr. Ash said prisoners were only to get a few sandwiches a day, but farmers felt sorry for them and gave them a “good country meal.” He also stated that one of the prisoners found work in Silver Spring at a surgical instrument factory after his time as a POW had ended. Woodrow Hanley of Walkersville claimed to have written back and forth with several of them for years since the war ended.

Wilson Stull recalled a time when he accompanied a driver, his friend John J. Keilholtz, to pick up the prisoners at the end of a workday. He said that they had been working that day with no guard, and at that on the way home, Keilholtz stopped at a liquor store, bought a fifth of whiskey, and “about 50 yards from the main gate of the camp, he pulled over behind some bushes and the seven of [them] killed that bottle of booze.” Stull had talked to a 19-year-old prisoner who spoke English, and who told him that he was “forced to join the German army under penalty of death.”

Carroll James, a Hagerstown resident, recalled stopping by a farm east of Thurmont, where he spotted POWs working with no guard in sight.

Harold Stull (no relation to Wilson) received ten POWs on his farm between October and November 1944 to help him and his wife shuck corn. He also recalls a navy man there named Hans von Reiter who had attended Oxford and spoke perfect English. On the days that Reiter worked, there was no guard. “The army had entrusted the work party to him.” Reiter’s aunt lived in Silver Spring and had always sent him new clothes. Stull remembered one American soldier who had returned from the war and was placed as a guard. “I guess the visions of his friends being killed by the Germans was crystal clear in his mind because on the first day, a couple of the prisoners gave him a bit of trouble and he beat the hell out of them with the butt of his rifle.”

Harold Stull also recalled that some of the soldiers were in their forties and were pulled from the farms to be put into the army. Others were college professors who “knew more about Frederick County history than most residents.”

A collection of letters to and from Richard Lebherz, an American soldier and resident of Frederick County who was deployed to France and Germany in World War II, gives some further insights into the sentiments surrounding the German POWs. In a letter to Richard from Mrs. B.O. Thomas, Sr., a friend of the family, dated September 26, 1944, she described the activities of the POWs: “German Prisoners are in the old CCC Camp across the road. They have been digging a ditch across to the old well for their water. They laugh and play with Billy. Billy carries a wooden gun and imitates the armed guard with them. At rest periods they carry Billy around and pass him from one to the other to hold. It does not seem possible that these same men are capable of the horrible crimes they have committed in enemy country.”

Later, on November 9, 1944, Thomas wrote another letter to Lebherz mentioning the POWS, this time in a more negative light. The letter does not state why she changed her mind about her feelings towards them, but the passage concerning the POWs comes directly after a paragraph about a memorial service to be held for the Frederick soldiers who had died in the war. She wrote, “I have no illusions about the Prisoners here. I wish we did not have to look at them ever. I feel sure they are Nazi Youth as some of them are very young. It will take us older people a long time to overcome our distrust, —if we ever do. More and more I know the difficulty of the command ‘Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.’”

Lebherz’s aunt Mayetta Hershberger, an executive of the U.S. Employment Service, sent a letter to Richard on October 4, 1944, also discussing the prisoners briefly: “We have now three hundred German prisoners of war here and my office is responsible for seeing that they are put to work. They are stationed at the old C.C. Camp across from the Catoctin Country Club. They certainly are a sad looking lot and so very young.”

On November 19, 1944, Patsy Heffelfinger, believed to be the Chief of Civilian Personnel at Camp Detrick, wrote to Richard: “In case you haven’t come face to face with any living Nazis this is to inform you that we have them working at the depot and whenever they are injured an MP brings them to me and I either do the honors or send them to their Dr. I’ve been both smiled at and Heil’d! Frankly, if every one of them accidently [sic] slit their throats I’d inwardly feel a sense of relief.”

In a letter from Lebherz, who was in France at the time, to his parents on December 11, 1944, he responded to the news of a German POW camp being in Frederick with disgust: “Aunt Mayetta wrote me that there are three hundred German Prisoners across from The Club, and I can imagine now Frederick must be perplexed as to how they should be treated. I hope not kindly at any rate. How ridiculous life can make things. There they are in Frederick hoping to get back to Germany, and here I am dreaming of getting back to Frederick. Now, does that make sense. Nevertheless, don’t let yourselves be fooled by them with their look of innocences [sic], as many of the ones you will see, probably have killed many American soldiers with no feeling except fanaticism and cold emotional tactics. Don’t be fooled! That is the most important thing at the present moment. We must not allow Germany to fool us once again.”

Richard’s mother, Mary Lebherz, wrote to him on March 19, 1945, “Yesterday we went up to the German prison camp, and it just burned me up, to see how well they are treated over here, and to know how they treat our boys over there.”

On February 11, 2004, a very sentimental letter was sent to the Frederick News-Post in response to an article entitled “The Golden Mile: Then and now,” which was published February 1 and had mentioned Camp Frederick. Dolly M. Burdette of Bunker Hill, West Virginia recalled that when she and her husband were newlyweds, her husband had worked as head dairyman on a farm in Ceresville and had driven the POWs to and from work. He “would pick up about 10 POWs, and they climbed in the back of the farm truck, with one guard. I remember the prisoners as being young, handsome, polite, and hard workers.” She also stated that after the war ended, some of the prisoners said they “did not want to go home. They would rather stay here because this is the greatest country in the world.” She then thanked the paper for bringing back those happy memories.

One Soldier’s Story: Erich Pahlow

POW and native Berliner Erich Pahlow is one example of a prisoner who managed to build a lifelong relationship with some of the people he met while serving in Frederick. He corresponded regularly with Charles Thomas and returned to Frederick in 1980 to visit Charles’ mother, Mrs. George Leicester Thomas, at the Buckeystown farm where Pahlow had worked. Pahlow spoke in his own words about his experience as a POW in a number of articles printed by the Frederick News-Post and Frederick Magazine.

Before the war began, Pahlow lived in Berlin with his wife and three children and worked as a commercial artist. “I had a lot of American friends and personally had no reason to be against the U.S. But when political powers go to war, the rest of us are forced to follow.”

He was drafted in 1940 at the age of 30 and was captured in 1943 in Lyon, France by a young American lieutenant. “All he did was grab my gun and throw it to the ground. The American just asked me where I lived and then proceeded to tell me that he had studied in Heidelberg.” Pahlow continued by adding, “I never even had to use that gun. People don’t realize how much listless sitting and waiting there is on the battlefield. The only way to keep sane is to stay occupied, so I drew a lot and painted.”

He, along with other prisoners, were taken to Oran, Tunisia and then arrived in Norfolk, Virginia after a 16-day trip on an aircraft carrier. “The crossing was the hardest part of the war for me. Each moment took me farther from home to some unknown place…I couldn’t even tell [my wife] that I was alive.”

After picking apples in Winchester, Virginia for one season, he was transported to Frederick, where he cleared land on farms. He also had to clear the border of a lake by removing trees and debris where a dam for a Washington, D.C. reservoir would be constructed. He explained, “This was a hard job for an artist, felling trees with a saw and an ax from eight ’til four every day.” He recalled going to Ft. Eustis on occasion to hear lectures about American life and democracy and receiving lessons in English. He also remembered “a number of musicians among the P.O.W.s, who created a band with instruments donated to them by local churches and Frederick residents. They performed for the American G.I.s and officers each Saturday.”

Pahlow’s greatest relief was to be able to continue painting. “I kept up my artwork and was soon asked to do signs and portraits for both Americans and Germans around Frederick County. The camp provided me with supplies and even a studio facing the north—the direction I suggested for the best light.” He even painted a Dutch scene on the kitchen wall of the Thomas’s house.

He was released in 1945 and said that his reunion with his wife was the greatest moment of their lives, even though they could not return to Berlin. “It was impossible… All of our friends and possessions were gone, and the only inhabitants left in the city were Russian and American police. It was like a cage.” Pahlow soon received a letter of recommendation from the commanding officer at the prison camp and got a job with an advertising agency. The Thomas’s helped to support him and his family by sending clothing, food, and books.

Though Pahlow had fond memories of the farm, Charles Thomas, who was ten years old when Pahlow and the prisoners came to work for his father, recalled Camp Frederick being nicknamed the “Frederick Hilton,” and remembered making a family trip to the camp to see a Christmas play the POWs put on in December 1945.

He poignantly summed up how difficult it was for the prisoners and citizens of Frederick to get used to living with each other: “When the Germans first came, Americans were cold to them and feared them. Some of the first farmers to use prisoners were even ostracized by the community. As time went on, however, those fears vanished, and many people became quite close 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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