Prisoners on the peninsula
During World War II, Cape Cod had a busy POW camp
The raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima, the D-Day invasion at Normandy, and the horrific German concentration camps are just a few of the images and stories many Americans think of when reflecting on World War II. There are other stories that are not as well known, however, including the existence of about 500 prisoner of war (POW) camps in the United States.
One of these camps was located right in our backyard—at Camp Edwards, a massive, 22,000-acre military training area established on Cape Cod in the late 1930s; the base has expanded over the years and is known today as Joint Base Cape Cod.
According to Jack Sheedy and Jim Coogan, who together wrote Cape Cod Voyage: A Journey Through Cape Cod’s History and Lore, prisoners started to arrive at Camp Edwards—and at other camps around the country—in April of 1943, after German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Africa Corps was driven out of North Africa. Most of the prisoners shipped to Camp Edwards, however, arrived in 1944 in the weeks following the D-Day invasion. In all, from 1943 to 1946, some 5,000 German soldiers were imprisoned at Camp Edwards.
According to Jerry Ellis, a selectman in Bourne and a co-director of the Cape Cod Military Museum who has given talks about Cape Cod during the war, many people he comes across have never heard of the POW camp. “It’s surprising how many people are totally unaware of that,” says Ellis. “The bottom line is this was the perfect place to have a POW camp because the canal was a natural barrier.”
There is some debate as to exactly where on the base the camp was located. According to the Massachusetts National Guard website, thenationsfirst.org, it was located at the south end of a runway. Ellis, however, believes it was located further to the west, near the East Coast Processing Center, where American servicemen who had gone AWOL were being retrained.
According to building plans signed in April of 1944, the prison camp was established in “Block 35,” a barracks area that had previously been used by American soldiers. Adjacent to Turpentine Road, the group of buildings was located slightly apart from other areas of the base, and Ellis says that made it a good location for the POW camp.