This is the first of a five part series that will be appearing on German Pulse over the next five weeks. Many of the primary sources in this work come directly from the archives at The Frederick County Historical Society in Frederick, Marlyand.
During World War II, the United States established its largest prisoner of war (POW) program in its history. By May of 1945, over 425,871 Axis prisoners were being held in POW camps across the country. Of these, 372,000 were German.
There were two POW camps located in Frederick County—both exclusively holding Germans—Camp Ritchie and Camp Frederick. Camp Ritchie was located in the northern part of the county and no more than 200 prisoners were held there at any given time, having little contact with county residents. There is little information printed in the media about that camp, but there are plenty of newspaper and magazine articles, personal letters, and firsthand accounts concerning the men who lived and worked at Camp Frederick, officially PW Branch Camp #6, which was located just outside of the city.
It is known that prisoners at Camp Ritchie were mostly employed by the military as carpenters, shoemakers, firemen, medics, orderlies, and cooks. At Camp Frederick, prisoners were primarily employed in agriculture, on privately owned farms, mostly as apple pickers. Some were also contracted out to commercial companies, such as the Oxford Fibre Brush Company, where they loaded and unloaded lumber. In essence, the POWs performed the tasks that no one else could do, due to the severe labor shortages as a result of the war.
This series of posts will focus primarily on the lives and experiences of the men at Camp Frederick, and although the information available is mostly one-sided, and most of the viewpoints are American, the idea that Camp Frederick was not an unpleasant place for a POW to be, and ran relatively smoothly with little unrest or injustice, is accepted here. Perhaps not all German POWs across the Unites States had a similar experience, but Camp Frederick truly appears to have been a humane and relatively agreeable place for a POW to be held captive during World War II.
The stories and experiences of both the prisoners and members of the Frederick community are varied and surprising. It appears from their descriptions that several of the POWs in Frederick left the country having had a positive experience and even some good memories.
The citizens of Frederick felt undoubtedly afraid of and ambivalent towards their enemy guests, but nevertheless, many of them found friendship and even lifelong relationships with some of the prisoners. Meticulously collected and continually revisited by the media over the decades, the articles, letters, and firsthand accounts of the prisoners and those that lived in Frederick reveal a very real, human, and personal side of the war, in many cases breaking down both German stereotypes and misconceptions about American nationalism.
Fort George G. Meade and the Maryland POW Camp System
In Maryland, the POW camp program was initially developed in three overlapping phases: planning for security and escape prevention, how to benefit from the work of the POWS, and developing a program of political rehabilitation. In the first stage, which lasted from December 1941 to the end of 1943, the provost marshal’s office of the War Department—which was in charge of the national POW program—established that one guard would need to supervise every two or three prisoners. The office was largely concerned with escape attempts and prisoners becoming hostile towards guards and each other. This explains why it spent so much time deliberating on this phase and creating a tight security policy.
It was during this stage that the provost marshal’s office of the War Department established its Maryland installation at Fort George G. Meade, located in the juncture of Anne Arundel, Howard, and Prince George’s counties. Fort Meade received permission to start holding prisoners on September 15, 1942, and initially held Axis-country civilians who were trapped in the U.S. after the war erupted.
Starting in September 1943 to July 1946, Fort Meade served as the main POW camp in Maryland with a capacity of 1,680 prisoners. When it officially became a POW camp in 1943, Fort Meade held mostly Italians and only a few German POWs, until May 1944 when it officially became a German POW camp. Most of the POWs captured and brought to Maryland were Wehrmacht (army) personnel, though there were also some soldiers from the Luftwaffe (air force) and the navy.
Around 1943, pressure began to build on the War Department to loosen up its harsh POW security policies. Local farmers, businesses, and manufacturers—due to extreme labor shortages—began to suggest that the POWs be allowed outside of Fort Meade to work for them.
As a result, in June 1943 authorization was given to Fort Meade for limited agricultural employment, but the War Department was unwilling to allow the soldiers outside of the camp. Five months later, as desperation for workers continued to grow, approval was given for the establishment of new German POW camps in Maryland. In February 1944, at a military-civilian conference held in Dallas, Texas, the War Department formalized the change in its security policy and the construction of 18 additional POW camps began.
These camps would employ workers in various agricultural and industrial activities in Maryland under the terms of the Geneva Convention, which stated that “captured enemy officers could not be compelled to work and that non-commissioned officers could only supervise.” Enlisted men could work any job except one “demeaning, degrading, or directly related to the war effort.”
Not only did the Geneva Convention not allow forced labor, but prisoners at Camp Frederick were considered Class A prisoners, meaning all work was voluntary. According to Charles P. Wales, who served as a guard at Camp Frederick from September 1945 to Spring 1946, many of the prisoners who decided to work outside the camp were prompted by boredom.
By August of 1945, over 4,000 POWs in Maryland were laboring for the army or navy, and 6,000 for civilian contractors. Most prisoners worked within the camps at camp bakeries, canteens, hospitals, or laundries. Others dug ditches, built roads, and managed lawns. Farmers could apply for the extra prisoners through the Department of Agriculture’s War Food Administration, while manufacturers had to go through the War Manpower Commission to receive prisoner labor. In Frederick, the Frederick County Agricultural Cooperative Association was formed in 1944 to “tap into the pool of available prisoner labor.”
Read more from this 5 part series:
Part 1 (current) | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Photos Courtesy: David Rathbun