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Prisoners on the peninsula


Courtesy of the Cape Cod Military Museum

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, 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, 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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