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.
To secure the camp, a stockade was built around the buildings featuring two barbed wire fences, the interior of which was electrified. The camp had an infirmary, a post exchange, a visitors building, single- and double-decker barracks, a recreation building and a guard tower at each corner. According to Anthony Cimino’s publication Camp Edwards in World War II, the prison camp had the capacity to hold as many as 2,000 men at a given time.
During the war, Camp Edwards had a large convalescent hospital where servicemen from across the country who had been injured in battle were rehabilitated; after treatment at Camp Edwards, they would be sent to hospitals closer to their homes. Ellis says German prisoners were also treated at this hospital—but they were admitted through a separate entrance.
According to stipulations agreed to in the Geneva Convention of 1929, prisoners of war could be required to work for the benefit of their captors. At American military bases in World War II, most of the work prisoners were asked to do involved duties regularly performed by American soldiers, many of whom were stationed overseas. In his book Nazi Prisoners of War in America, Texas A&M history professor Arnold Krammer estimates that on military installations alone, German prisoners completed more than 90,000 man-days of labor between early 1943 and December of 1945.
The prisoners were given operational and maintenance tasks to perform around the base; they were also used for contract labor, mainly at nearby farms and industrial plants. This was important, Krammer writes, because as the mobilization of American forces increased as the war stretched on, the prospect for filling the enormous holes in production at American plants and farms grew bleak.
Contractors who would hire the prisoners faced several obstacles, including completing an extensive government application; other challenges included a lack of training for specific tasks, language barriers, and concerns about security.
In camps across the country, prisoners were paid 80 cents per day in canteen coupons, with an opportunity for more productive workers to earn $1.50. The coupons could be used to buy cigarettes, candy and other items in the post exchange. In an arrangement with the federal government, farmers who employed prisoners would pay the free market rate for the work performed—paid to the prisoners in coupons—with the difference paid to the Treasury Dept. to support the POW program.
With so many young men serving overseas, many farms on Cape Cod were in dire need of laborers to help harvest strawberries, cranberries and other crops. According to woodsholemuseum.org—the website for the Woods Hole Historical Museum—in 1944 alone German prisoners aided with the harvest of 90,000 quarts of strawberries at Falmouth farms.
Speaking of a labor shortage, no one could have predicted the need that arose following the Great Atlantic Hurricane, which ripped through New England on September 14, 1944. In the aftermath of the storm, the Camp Edwards prisoners helped clear fallen trees and debris from the Cape’s roadways and beaches. They also repaired damage at local boatyards and built roads near the base, including Sandwich Road in Bourne—all under the guard of the 1114th SCU Military Police.
Back at the base, the men ran the tree trunks and branches through portable sawmills, which had been shipped to Camp Edwards from the state of Washington and were set up a short distance from the POW camp. Through this effort, Ellis says the prisoners helped salvage several million board feet of lumber, which would later be used for military construction purposes.
West Dennis resident Margaret Eastman, 84, recalls seeing the prisoners at work. “We moved to Dennisport just in time for the September 1944 hurricane,” Eastman says. “The cleanup from that storm went on for months, even years. As a young girl of 13, my friends and I would watch the army trucks go through town loaded with young—and they were very young—war prisoners. They seemed glad to see us and waved to us, said things we couldn’t understand, but they were smiling. We didn’t do more than wave back at them as they rode through.”
A lifelong resident of Harwich, Albert Raneo, 83, has similar memories. “I remember the POWs from Germany, dressed in blue coveralls, being transported between strawberry farms, cranberry bogs, and areas that suffered severe damage from the hurricane,” Raneo says. “They did a lot of great work, particularly in Onset where my grandmother lived. The damage there was extensive.”
According to news clippings from the period, Cape residents were wary of the prisoners, and there were a few instances of prisoners making escape attempts. According to Sheedy and Coogan’s book, a prisoner named Victor Gleiberger ran away from a work detail in Cotuit. He was caught a few days later after hiding in bogs in Santuit.
As a boy, Ellis lived with his grandparents in Sagamore Village and had multiple first-hand encounters with the prisoners. Ellis, 82, wrote of some of these experiences—including a run-in with a prisoner on the run—in a recent edition of Post Scripts, the newsletter for the Bourne Historical Society.
One afternoon in 1944, residents in the area were warned that some prisoners were at large, and to be vigilant. “I vividly remember needing to go outside,” Ellis writes, “as my grandparents had kept us inside all day. I volunteered to go out and get some kerosene from behind our barn in the backyard. As I filled up the jar halfway with kerosene, I peeked around the corner and there he was dressed in dark blue coveralls in a blue fatigue jacket with white letters reading, ‘PW.’ I ran back in the house and told my grandparents, which prompted my grandfather to patrol the yard with a bat. The prisoner was caught trying to swim across the canal under the Sagamore Bridge.”
Ellis’ second encounter was a much friendlier exchange. “My neighbor [a practical engineer at Camp Edwards] brought home two POWs for dinner one Sunday, and after playing basketball with me, one of the prisoners noticed a book of ships on the ground. He asked if I liked ships and told me he was in the navy.” After the neighbor hosted the prisoners for another dinner the following week, he paid Ellis a visit as the prisoners had left gifts for him. “Wrapped inside some newspaper,” Ellis writes, “were a hand-carved boat and a German military insignia from a prisoner’s uniform.” Ellis says he never learned the names of the two prisoners he met, or what eventually became of them, yet to this day he has the mementos they gave him.
In 1991, a film starring Walter Matthau and Robert Carradine titled The Incident was released, telling a fictional story set at a World War II prison camp in Colorado. According to theincidentmovie.com, a website dedicated to the film—and to providing details about real-life POW camps in the U.S.—following the surrender of German forces in May of 1945, German prisoners were supposed to be repatriated back to Germany. According to the site, however, due to several reasons, including the fact that Germany was in disarray and food in the country was scarce, many prisoners were repatriated in 1946, some even later.
Before being sent home, Ellis says many of the prisoners were first sent to England to help rebuild that country’s infrastructure. Other German prisoners, according to theincidentmovie.com, were shipped to Italy, France, the Netherlands, Russia and elsewhere.
Ellis says at least a few Germans who had been imprisoned at the POW camp stayed in the area or returned to Cape Cod in the years following the war. This could be attributed to the Cape’s natural beauty, or, perhaps, to the treatment the men received as prisoners.
In his book Stark Decency: German Prisoners of War in a New England Village, writer Allen Koop states that German prisoners were treated with compassion in U.S. prison camps. A professor at Dartmouth College, Koop researched New Hampshire’s lone World War II camp, which had been located in the town of Stark. He traveled to Germany in the 1980s to meet with former Stark POWs and even organized a reunion for five of the men to return to the Granite State as free men.
Koop writes that in POW camps in America, prisoners—were they so inclined—were allowed to wear Nazi uniforms, celebrate Nazi holidays, and even use the Hitler salute. He also describes the basic standard of living prisoners experienced in American camps—based on factors including housing, sanitation, food and recreation—as exceeding that of the regular German army. At the time, many in the press were critical of these scenarios, arguing that the prisoners were being coddled.
Today, visitors to Joint Base Cape Cod—the name that covers all of the military agencies and installations currently calling the base home, including Camp Edwards—will find little trace of the camp that once housed German prisoners. Pine trees surround quiet paved roadways that once passed by the camp. Nearby, fields that were once home to hundreds of barracks for American servicemen are vacant or overgrown.
A short distance off, visitors will find the Roxy, the base’s movie theater located near the intersection of Turpentine and Lee roads. Seventy years ago the site was home to the sawmills where the German prisoners worked, helping to transform thousands of hurricane-felled trees into useful lumber.
During the 1970s, Ellis says a large problem was literally unearthed at the location. A member of Bourne’s planning board at the time, Ellis says the area where the theater’s foundation was to be built was infested with termites. The bugs were chewing on remnants left a quarter century before by the sawmill . . . a lifetime supply of sawdust.
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