My parents moved from the District to Washington Grove in 1949. They were told by the old timers that there had been a World War II POW camp in a field by the train tracks. As kids, we all “knew” the story, although there was no sign of it having existed. Can you discover if this was true or just a town legend?
— Regina Carelli,
By the end of World War II, Axis POWs were housed in nearly every U.S. state. There were more than 500 camps in the country, 19 in Maryland alone. Virginia had POWs, too.
Why put the enemy literally in our own back yard? Shipping POWs to the United States solved a lot of problems, said Antonio Thompson, who teaches history at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee and wrote “Men in German Uniform: POWs in America During World War II.” For starters, it allowed the military to abide by the guidelines in the 1929 Geneva Convention, which stipulated that captured fighters must be housed safely and fed well during their confinement.
“The first real combat action for American soldiers is in North Africa,” Thompson said. “That’s also where we’re going to be accumulating our first land combat prisoners. When you’re in North Africa, you can’t provide prisoners much safety.”
The same thing held true when combat moved to the European theater. POW camps require guards and an infrastructure, things that are costly to an army on the move. “And in France and Italy, there’s an opportunity if they escape for them to return to their lines,” Antonio said.
And so Liberty ships that arrived in Allied ports loaded with war supplies returned to the United States with a different cargo: prisoners. About 371,000 Germans were sent stateside, along with 51,000 Italians and 5,500 Japanese.
Fort Meade, which straddles the borders of Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George’s counties, received its first POWs in 1942. It would eventually house more than 2,000.
From there, POWs were sent to regional work camps in Gaithersburg, Fort Washington, Smith Point, Flintstone, Pikesville, Frederick and Westminster in Maryland, and Winchester in Virginia. They were much appreciated, since so many able-bodied American workers were off at war.
The Gaithersburg location (in the Washington Grove/Emory Grove area) was known as Camp #8. It was not a permanent camp, but a set of tents in which both the POWs and their guards lived.
Enlisted POWs were required to work. Officers were not, though they could volunteer. The POWs were doled out to farmers to help with chores: harvesting apples in Winchester, for example, and cutting pulp wood at Smith Point. Records of Bethesda’s Stonyhurst Quarry at the Montgomery County Historical Society include meticulously filled-out work records of POWs who were employed breaking and loading flagstone.
If this sounds like slave labor, it wasn’t. In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, prisoners were paid for their work, though they received scrip that could be used only at the camp canteen. That was so guards couldn’t be bribed and prisoners wouldn’t have anything to spend should they escape.
And some did try to escape. In one attempt, prisoners dug a tunnel from Camp Papago Park in Arizona in the hope of fleeing to Mexico. Within a month, all 25 POWs were recaptured.
There also could be violence among POWs, especially as hard-core Nazi elements beat — and in some cases, killed — fellow Germans they felt were too accommodating to their American captors.
But there was a definite upside to being a prisoner of the Americans, chiefly that you weren’t in danger of being chewed up in the desperate, faltering Nazi war machine. Said Thompson: “We let them play soccer. Some camps had boxing matches, volleyball, record players. They put on their own plays and musicals.”
One Fort Meade document that Answer Man examined listed the previous month’s movie screenings, including “Top Hat,” “My Favorite Wife” and “Tarzan and the Amazons.” Prisoners could also take classes there, in subjects ranging from algebra to shorthand.
U.S. camp officials skirted the Geneva Conventions by trying to subtly indoctrinate the POWs in the American way of life. A newsletter produced by prisoners sympathetic to America — Der Ruf, or the Call — was sold, though in many camps, unrepentant Nazis would buy up all the copies and destroy them.
When the war ended, the slow process of repatriating prisoners began. By 1946, most had been sent home.
In 1948, Max Hussing — Prisoner 31G 1833605 when he was at Camp #8 — wrote to A.W. Hines, whose Laytonsville, Md., farm he had worked on. “How we did long for home, although we were well off,” he wrote from Westphalia, Germany. “We did not even know whether our families were still alive.”
Hussing remembered a simple act of generosity: Mrs. Hines had given the prisoners milk.
“You were kind to me and my comrades, we shall always remember this,” wrote Hussing, who closed with an appeal that Hines send him a food packet. The war had taken a horrible toll on the country that had started it, and Hussing was reaching out to someone he thought could help: his former enemy.
Send your question about the Washington area to firstname.lastname@example.org. 8 For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.