Saturday, September 5, 2015

German PWs in Rockingham County, 1944-1945

POWs waiting for ocean transport, from Arnold Krammer's
book Nazi Prisoners of War in America.
Fall is quickly approaching, and in the Valley, that means apples! The Shenandoah Valley has long been an agricultural center, and 70 years ago, our farms and factories were vital to the war effort—part of the “breadbasket of democracy,” as wartime propaganda films called the United States. (Don’t underestimate Rockingham’s importance—in August 1944, Fox Movietone, Pathé News, and MGM came to the Plains district to shoot newsreel footage of Rockingham’s food production and processing. Our turkey flocks, orchards, and processing facilities were broadcast to moviegoers nationwide!) However, the workforce available to harvest and process food was quickly dwindling. The Virginia labor force lost 300,000 able-bodied men to the armed forces, and still more left for higher paying jobs in government and other wartime workplaces. In 1943, state farmers found labor where they could—convicts from state prisons, the Women’s Land Army (a civilian organization), conscientious objectors released from Soil Conservation work, and vacationers from Washington, D.C. all helped bring in the harvest. The 1944 harvest was expected to be a bumper crop, and Rockingham County farmers hoped to use the same sources of labor that they used in 1943, as well as Boy Scouts and school students, for the growing and harvest seasons. County Agricultural Extension Agent Frederick Holsinger also applied to the Army’s Third Service Command at Baltimore for another source to supplement the labor force—German prisoners of war.

According to the 1929 Geneva Convention, prisoners of war (POWs or PWs) could work for the good of their captors, as long as certain criteria were met. First, they had to be either enlisted men or non-commissioned officers. PW labor could not be used for work directly related to the war effort, and all assignments had to meet certain safety guidelines. Lastly, the PWs had to be paid for their work.[1] Prisoners were a guaranteed product of combat in WWII, and keeping them in camps in the European war zone was problematic. The United States had never had so many war captives, and with no practical experience and only theoretical guidelines to work from, it seems they worked things out as they went. Shipping the prisoners back to the U.S. was a logical move. Rather than having to ship more food to Europe or sacrifice provisions meant for American troops, they could use the mostly empty supply ships returning across the Atlantic to ferry prisoners instead.

Branch Camp No. 7, Timberville, Virginia. From
Gregory L. Owen's book Wehrmacht Autumns.
In fact, from 1942 to 1946, close to half a million Italian and German PWs were transported back to American shores. (In May 1945, there were 425,871 PWs in the U.S.—371,683 Germans, 50,273 Italians, and 3,915 Japanese.[2])The first prisoners went to former Civilian Conservation Corps camps, unused parts of military bases, fairgrounds, auditoriums, and tent cities. By the end of the war, 155 more permanent base camps had been established, as well as 511 branch camps when the bases were too few to meet demand. The Italians and Germans were already using American PWs to fill their own labor drains as men went to the war, and the U.S. did the same to free up troops for overseas shipment. The first priority for labor was to military installations for essential war work. In base camps, skilled PWs also did everything from working as medical and dental aids to carpentry and plumbing to road and yard work to tending the camp PX or post office. More than 40 states appealed for help from the government due to workforce shortages, and by November 1944, there were more PWs employed in agricultural work than essential war work—over 115,000 by November 1945. Businesses and chambers of commerce could petition the War Department for labor, and that is what happened in Rockingham County. There is a lot of additional interesting information available about the bureaucratic workings of the PW program, the distribution of prisoners, Nazism in the camps, reeducation, repatriation, and the rest, but I want to focus on the local, small scale of Fort Pickett’s Branch Camp No. 7 in Timberville.

After an initial meeting on June 5, 1944 to ascertain the interest in war prisoner labor, county agent Holsinger set the bureaucratic wheels in motion by submitting a certification of need in order to have prisoners allocated to the area. Branch Camp No. 7 was established on the farm of Herman L. Hollar, three miles west of Timberville, on a field full of jagged limestone that made it good only for grazing, not planting. The facility was planned to accommodate 250 prisoners, 50 soldier guards, and 8 officers. Americans and Germans alike would live in tents at the camp and have separate dining facilities. Local workers installed sewage, water, and electricity to the camp, and the first prisoners to arrive in August 1944 assembled the canvas tents, as well as 8’ barbed wire fences around the perimeter. The fence had gates in the center of the east and west sides, with a road bisecting, plus 8’ guard towers on each corner; the fences and guard towers were the only things in the camp built of wood. Soon the Timberville camp was full of German prisoners, who arrived by open truck with the town’s population lining the streets to watch. Those interested in obtaining PW labor applied to the county agent’s office. If they were assigned men, they would receive instructions about their responsibilities. Employers had to pick up PWs at the camp, though prisoners working at farms as far south as Harrisonburg and Bridgewater were trucked to the Greyhound bus station on North Main Street in Harrisonburg and picked up there. Demand for labor surpassed supply, so labor was allocated based on priorities—harvesting was priority number one. PWs also made hay, hauled in small grain, performed orchard work, cut corn, filled siloes, and worked in industry. (Zigler Canning Cooperative Inc. and Rockingham Poultry Marketing Cooperative Inc. were the two main industrial contractors for the Timberville camp, though PWs also worked at City Produce Exchange, the Harrisonburg Junk and Hide Company, and Mason’s saw mill, as well as food processing plants in the Timberville/Broadway area.) The government set three months as the maximum contract period, so a truck convoy returned the 170 prisoners to Camp Pickett on November 1, 1944. As anticipated, the year was a bumper crop for both apples and peaches, and the harvest might not have been brought in without PW labor. Because of this success, the camp opened again in 1945 from July 16 to November 16, when it served as a branch of the Front Royal base camp under the direction of Lieut. Nathan Mandel.

PWs enjoying a drink. From Arnold Krammer's
book Nazi Prisoners of War in America.
Conditions in the camps were good, partially due to the Geneva Convention and partially due to the prevailing idea that word would get back to Germany and make them more willing to surrender, knowing that conditions would not be bad. Farmers paid the army the prevailing local wage for each worker, and in turn the army paid workers $0.80 per day in canteen checks, which could be used to purchase things like toiletries, candy, soda, the occasional beer, and other items that weren’t scarce to point of shortage. (Any money they did not spend during the war went back to Germany with them.) Prisoners had responsibilities in camp, just as they would in their own barracks. German camp management solved discipline issues internally, and prisoners were accountable for keeping the camp clean. Their food was also prepared by German cooks, who received the same rations that their American counterparts did— coffee, tea, milk, corn flakes, jam, potatoes, rice, meat, fish, vegetables, eggs, and the like. In fact, some prisoners thought they had more food than they needed! Timberville PWs also had regular church services held by alternating local pastors with the aid of a German-speaking Lutheran pastor from Edinburg. (The Rev. Samuel Berry was one of those pastors, and his former church, St. John’s Lutheran Chapel, is now home to the altar made and used by prisoners in their services. It reads “Ehre sei Gott in der hoehe” – “Glory to God in the highest.” The PWs left the altar behind at the end of the war because they wanted a church to be able to use it.) The prisoners were housed, clothed, fed, and offered religious comfort in the beauty of the Valley. Former prisoner Herbert Vogt observed, “The countryside around Timberville is nice and is similar to the countryside around my hometown.”[3]

PW Herman Vogt, who had fond
memories of the Shenandoah
Valley. From Gregory Owen's
book Wehrmacht Autumns.
Vogt was typical of the average PW at the Timberville camp—or at any of the hundreds of camps across the country. He was barely 19 years old when he was captured in France in June 1944. Local resident Benjamin May, who was six years old when the PWs first arrived, remembered the children expecting the Germans to be “ten feet tall and supermen and mean.”[4] Instead, they discovered a group of unthreatening teenagers, not that much older than themselves. The only “escapee” from the Timberville camp was 18-year-old Kurt Krott, who disappeared and then returned 12 hours later, saying he had been sleeping in the woods nearby. Krott was only 5’2” and 107 pounds, and often spoke of being homesick. While there were many critics of the PW program, especially those living near camps who were afraid of escapes or who had family in the military and saw PWs as symbols of the enemy, eventually the Germans were largely accepted because of their strong work ethic, cleanliness, and good manners. One woman who lived on Main Street in Timberville remembered the PWs coming through town in a truck singing melodies in German with good voices on the way to pick tomatoes. Others recalled them singing often while working the farms, seemingly content. “I guess they were happy to be out of the war,” Benjamin May said on the subject years later.[5] John Yeich of Broadway agreed. “They were out of the war…They were pretty happy to be there, I suspect.”[6] The PWs weren’t asked to work any harder or differently than a local man would be; they were often mixed among local workers. They had hourly breaks and square meals—though they were supposed to bring their own lunch from camp, farm wives often prepared home cooked meals for the laborers. Guards for the prisoners at work were often armed with only a sidearm or not at all, and by September 1945, American MP shortages meant none of the industrial work details had a guard at all. Of course, that doesn’t mean the Germans stuck to the rules. PWs at Hollar’s Orchard convinced 13-year-old Jacob Saylor, who delivered water to them, to break the rules and buy them some snuff. He liked to think of German water boys doing the same and getting tobacco for American PWs, because to him the Germans were “just like Americans.”[7]

Prisoners working at Fort Story, Virginia. From Arnold
|Krammer's book Nazi Prisoners of War in America.
The camp, composed largely of impermanent structures, was dismantled after November 1945. The Daily News Record didn’t report the last prisoners leaving when the camp closed, though whether that was due to lack of interest or more pressing news items is impossible to say. In general, branch camps shut down after war and the land and materials were sold at auction. Today, nothing remains of the Timberville PW camp except a few concrete slabs and guard tower foundations on private property along Orchard Drive. The PW program was ultimately successful in feeding, clothing, housing, entertaining, and even reeducating German servicemen. The U.S. government made $100 million profit on prisoner labor in 1944, which made the camps basically self-supporting. PWs contributed immensely to feeding the nation and its men overseas. In seven months over two harvests in Timberville, German PWs provided 26,081 man days of labor, including 5,573 man days in agricultural work and 5,873 man days in food processing in 1944 and 8,202 man days in agricultural work and 6,433 man days in processing in 1945.[8] The experience seems to have been largely positive for the German prisoners as well. A survey of more than 20,000 PWs leaving Camp Shanks, New York showed that “74 percent of the German prisoners of war who were interred in this country left with an appreciation and friendly attitude toward their captors.”[9] Germans who returned home to the Russian Zone often depended on food packages from concerned friends they had made while imprisoned in the U.S., while American and British Zone repatriates often found work with the U.S. Army or American Military government because they had learned English in captivity. Many former PWs returned to visit and relive their days in the camps across the country, including in the Shenandoah Valley. In the late 1970s, Timberville resident Dow Souder ran into a German man at the bank who had brought his wife, friend, and friend’s wife to see the area where he’d been held during the war. At a camp reunion in Texas in the 1950s, former PW Wilhelm Sauerbrei told a reporter, “I’ll tell you, pal, if there is ever another war, get on the side that America isn’t, then get captured by the Americans—you’ll have it made!”[10]

Compared to fighting on the front lines, harvesting apples in the beautiful Valley must have been a positive experience for German PWs. As for Rockingham County residents, meeting “the enemy” in person and seeing that the Germans weren’t much different from the locals may have been equally positive. This is a fascinating part of our county’s history, and I’m grateful to Gregory L. Owen for all the work he has done in researching and recording it. I highly recommend reading his works for more information, particularly Wehrmacht Autumns: German Prisoners of War in the Plains District of Rockingham County, Virginia During World War II, which is available at Massanutten Regional Library in the Genealogy room (GEN 940.412 O).

by Kristin Noell

[1] See 1929 Geneva Convention, part III, third section, articles 27-34 for more information on PW labor
[2] Owen, HRHS Newsletter, 1.
[3] Owen, Wehrmacht Autumns, 94.
[4] Ibid., 47.
[5] Ibid., 40.
[6] Mellott.
[7] Owen, Wehrmacht Autumns, 59.
[8] Ibid., 24.
[9] Krammer, 263.
[10] Ibid., 267.

Bibliography
  1. “10 German PW’s at Work Here.” Daily News-Record, Jul. 24, 1945.
  2. “200 Prisoners of War Available in Rockingham after July 16th.” Daily News-Record, Jul. 6, 1945.
  3. Austin, Luanne. “On the Homefront.” Daily News-Record, Mar. 15, 2007.
  4. “Every Source is Being Tapped to Get Farm Labor.” Daily News-Record, May 11, 1944.
  5. Gansberg, Judith M. Stalag, U.S.A.: The Remarkable Story of German POWs in America. New York: Crowell, 1977.
  6. ICRC. Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, Jul. 27, 1929. https://www.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/Treaty.xsp?documentId=0BDEDDD046FDEBA9C12563CD002D69B1&action=openDocument
  7. Jost, Scott. Shenandoah Valley Apples. Chicago: Columbia College Chicago Press, 2013.
  8. Krammer, Arnold. Nazi Prisoners of War in America. New York: Stein and Day, 1979.
  9. Mellott, Jeff. “'Migrant' Workers – Exhibit Recalls When POWs Rescued Farmers.” Daily News-Record, Sep. 22, 2010.
  10. Moore, John Hammond. “Hitler’s Wehrmacht in Virginia, 1943-1946.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 85(3), Jul. 1977.
  11. “Nazi Prisoners Come to County.” Daily News-Record, Jun. 16, 1945.
  12. Owen, Gregory L. “Prisoners of War in Rockingham County During WWII.” The Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society Newsletter 29(2). Spring 2007.
  13. Owen, Gregory L. Wehrmacht Autumns: German Prisoners of War in the Plains District of Rockingham County, Virginia During World War II. Timberville, Va.: Gregory L. Owen, 2003
  14. Patterson, Dana L. “Church Altar a Reminder of German POWs in Area.” North Fork Journal. Sep. 16-22, 1992.
  15. “Timberville’s Peach Harvest in Full Swing.” Daily News-Record, Aug. 23, 1944.
  16. “War Prisoner Camp Meeting.” Daily News-Record, Jun. 1, 1944.
  17. “War Prisoners Arrive Today.” Daily News-Record, Aug. 1, 1944.
  18. “War Prisoners to Leave Today.” Daily News-Record, Nov. 1, 1944.
  19. “War Prisoners to Work Here.” Daily News-Record, Jul. 20, 1945.

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