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Prisoners on the peninsula

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Photography by Matt Gill

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.”

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