Silently, the military detachment of six marched two abreast inside the Fort Meade post cemetery. They laid a wreath by the tombstones, then stood at attention while their commander spoke, in German. The men saluted and stepped back.
As is customary each year about this time, the delegation from the West German embassy in Washington was paying homage in a quiet corner of this sprawling American army post to 34 countrymen. The fallen Germans were prisoners of war who died here in captivity more than a generation ago.
The brief moment on this blustery gray November morning recalled a forgotten chapter of homefront history, when 425,000 Axis prisoners -- most of them Germans -- were shipped to America and sent to 501 camps across the country.
About 13,000 of them wound up in Maryland, many working as laborers on farms. The memory of their enforced stay is etched in the minds of many aging farmers who knew them then and who, in some cases, have kept in contact with their former captives, exchanging letters and sometimes even visits.
Most of the prisoners returned home after the war, but on military posts and in national cemeteries around this country 995 men who fought against the United States in World War II now lie interred in lonesome graves. The only POWs buried in Maryland are here at Meade, two Italians along with the Germans.
Naval Commander Werner Henke was the only officer and the first to die here, shot while trying to escape on June 15, 1944. The last, Heinz Saack, a 23-year-old private, died of tuberculosis on July 4, 1947. In between were five suicides, one the day after Germany surrendered. Of the total, 27 died after their country lost the war.
The scant details of the deaths were contained on a sheet of paper Commander Ulrich Fricke, the assistant naval attache, had obtained from Bonn. In his graveside remarks, however, he memorialized more than those buried here. He spoke of soldiers who died on battlefields and in prison camps but also of civilians whose race, religion or convictions condemned them to death and of all victims of war and violence.
World War II was the first and last war in which large numbers of foreign prisoners were interned on our shores. The POWs first came in large numbers in mid-1943, after the defeat of the Africa Korps. Successive waves followed the Normandy invasion and the final assault on Germany in 1945. In all, 19 prisoner of war camps were scattered across the Maryland countryside.
"They were excellent workers," recalled J. Edgar Bryan Sr., now 93 and residing in a Centreville nursing home. Back in World War II, Bryan was an Eastern Shore farmer and the "placement man" for Queen Anne's County, in charge of detailing POWs where they were needed.
"I felt sorry for those men," he said. "I knew they were German and how wars are run, but, my God, those boys didn't start the war. Hitler and his staff did all that."
Andrews Air Force Base, then known as Andrews Field, had its detachment of German POWs who handled many of the housekeeping chores. Robert M. Leventhal, a former GI who was stationed there, recalled that one prisoner of war was "put to work painting scenes of air combat on the empty walls of the coffee shop. He was good. I watched him working through more than a few breakfasts. Then somebody with a more discerning eye took a closer look and discovered that his mural showed a disproportionate number of allied warplanes being shot down. The artist was banished."
Most of those who waited out the war in the Free State passed through Ft. Meade. Some wound up in places like Edgewood Arsenal, Fort Holabird and Fort Washington. Prisoners at Edgewood took extension courses from the University of Maryland, Holabird prisoners from St. John's College and those interned at Meade studied under the auspices of Johns Hopkins University. Fort Meade also had the Prisoner of War and Alien Enemy Information Bureau, staffed in part, after mid-1944, by Italians, whose country had switched sides. Meade also handled all incoming POW mail.
Most POWs were dispatched to so-called "branch camps" in rural areas, to harvest timber and crops wherever wartime labor was scarce. In Maryland, their efforts were said to have saved the Eastern Shore tomato crop of 1945.
The branch camps were in such seemingly unlikely locales as Gaithersburg and Easton, Pikesville and Frederick. Others sprouted at Berlin in Worcester County, Church Hill in Queen Anne's, Hurlock and Cambridge in Dorchester, Nanjemoy in Charles, Green Ridge in Allegany and Westover in Somerset, among other pastoral outposts.
No plaques mark the spots where the POWs lived or worked. The Gaithersburg camp today is the site of a county park across the road from some subsidized housing; the Easton camp is now the airport that serves the Eastern Shore gentry; and the Fort Meade barracks, their windows bricked in, are used to store medical supplies and hazardous chemicals.
The prisoners allowed out of camp to fill the wartime labor shortage commuted to the farms where they worked, with the farmers providing transportation both ways.For their labor, they received 80 cents a day -- the rough equivalent of an American private's $21 a month, but in scrip redeemable at their camp exchange instead of in cash.
At first, farmers refrained from using POW labor on their farms. "The farmers and the wives were afraid of them," Edgar Bryan recalled. "I tried to tell them they'd been screened, but darned if I wasn't two weeks getting 'em to take them. But once they had them, they didn't want others."
And, contrary to the rules, the prisoners often received extra food and beverages to supplement the lunch they carried from camp. "This is the Eastern Shore and it's an odd place," Bryan told the American officer at the Church Hill camp. "They'd feed a hungry dog." Bryan employed POWs on his own farm along with dispatching them to others, and confesses he "broke that law regular."
Bryan's job placing POWs paid him $150 a month. "Some nights, I wouldn't get to bed until a quarter to one," he complained. "Some farmer would call up and cancel six men at the last minute." More often, though, the demand exceeded the supply. By war's end, more than one farmer wanted to keep the workers on in peacetime. Sometimes the feeling was mutual.
"Two of them just begged me to keep them in this country or get them back here and they would work for me," recalled Charles H. Davis, Sr., a retired farmer living near Beallsville in Montgomery County. "I knew it was a very complicated procedure and I didn't pursue it." On the Eastern Shore, it was Eugene Schwaniger's idea to have Hans Knoedler, a young POW working on his farm near Trappe, stay on. But Knoedler wanted to go home to his mother, he recalled in a long-distance telephone conversation this week.
Like many of those captured towards the war's end, Knoedler was young, only 16 when he was taken prisoner inside Germany on March 30, 1945. He had been conscripted only a month before, and his POW ship was the last to leave Europe. It arrived in Newport News, Va., on May 8, V-E Day in Europe. He worked on the Schwaniger farm through the summer.
"It was very nice in Maryland," said the former POW, now a 53-year old accountant in Mainz, West Germany. "Conditions were good." The Schwanigers, he said, treated him as if he were an American and not a prisoner.
Bryan said he did not worry about prisoners escaping. Stopping at his Centreville office one day, he left four sitting in his car. When a visiting federal man complained, Bryan said, "Let me tell you something: damn if they don't run toward us, not away from us." He then returned to his car to find the Germans "sitting down like mice."
Some did escape -- 1,583 nationwide as of April 21, 1945. One escapee walked out of his Somerset County camp in October 1945, in an American uniform that had been used in a prison play. Karl Hermann Pospiech, 21, somehow made his way from the Eastern Shore to New York City, where he obtained a new name, Social Security number and American discharge pin and worked as a shipping clerk in a perfume factory until his arrest in April 1946.
Many of the prisoners were young and apolitical, especially towards the end of the war when Hitler's Fortress Europe was crumbling. "We discovered that these men mostly were not real Nazis," said Leland Clark, who brought six POWs to the Montgomery County farm he managed outside Poolesville 25 miles from Washington. "They were not sympathetic to the war, mostly."
Not all in German uniform were German. Hermann Huber, whose family had suffered financially at the hands of the Nazis, was an Austrian drafted into the service of the Third Reich. In 1945, at age 17, he found himself a prisoner of war, working on the Wye Mills farm of Alfred Covington, now 82. "There was definitely a feeling that wasn't very complimentary between him and the German troops, especially the SS elite," Covington recalled.
Covington took a liking to the boy, to whom he gave a gold-plated ring before his repatriation. Huber, in turn, presented his captor's sister-in-law with a box of detergent and then cried the day he left, Nov. 15, 1945. Over the years, Covington and Huber kept in touch. This summer, Hermann Huber Jr., 21, visited Covington at his Eastern Shore farm.
By the end of the young man's visit, Covington said, "he was almost like a second grandson to me."
The Schwanigers also kept in touch after the war with the POWs they knew. For a few years, they even sent care packages of food and clothing. One died in a lumbermill a decade ago. The other, Knoedler, became financially successful, and, this July, Schwaniger and Knoedler -- captor and captive -- had a reunion.
The Schwanigers flew to Germany. At an emotional airport welcome, his wife was given a dozen roses. Schwaniger says Knoedler treated them "like royalty," driving them 1,600 kilometers around Germany and paying for hotels and restaurant meals.
"When they went back to America," said 17-year-old Armin Knoedler, the former prisoner's son, "we all had a lot of tears."