Stories from Camp Frederick: German World War II POWs in Frederick, Maryland (Part 4)

By Amelia Cotter on Email

This is the fourth post of a five part series that will be appearing on German Pulse over a five week period.  Many of the primary sources in this work come directly from the archives at The Frederick County Historical Society in Frederick, Marlyand.  Links to the other parts of this series will be placed at the end of this post.

Personal Accounts and Memories

Several personal letters, interviews, and articles survive which give various insights into what it must have been like to be a German POW in Frederick, or what it was like to encounter or work with one. These experiences represent a broad array of perspectives, from the POWs themselves to the residents of Frederick who found them to be nice young men and good workers, or a threatening menace to their community.

According to Judge Robert Clapp, Jr., a soldier during the war who had kept up with local events, “people in general were very receptive to the idea of the German prisoners being here.” Catherine Handley, wife of a foreman at the Stoner and Powell lime plant at Fountain Rock on Biggs Ford Road, stated, “People were a little intimidated about the prisoners coming here, but we really needed manpower to have that lime when farmers came for it, or to load on the train. But we found they were just people. They were good workers, and after a while there was no apprehension.”

“They were big, blond German boys. Too bad we didn’t take any pictures,” said Middletown resident Betty Powell, who grew up on a farm where the prisoners had worked.

Cyril Klein said they “had a well 600 feet deep and they still didn’t have enough water.” He also remarked that the men were happy to have been “captured by the Americans, rather than by the Russians…They were deathly afraid of the Russians. They were also deathly afraid of airplanes. Every time a plane would go over they would all stop what they were doing and watch it.”

Dr. Howard Ash spoke of a sick call every day at 4 p.m. Dr. Ash said prisoners were only to get a few sandwiches a day, but farmers felt sorry for them and gave them a “good country meal.” He also stated that one of the prisoners found work in Silver Spring at a surgical instrument factory after his time as a POW had ended. Woodrow Hanley of Walkersville claimed to have written back and forth with several of them for years since the war ended.

Wilson Stull recalled a time when he accompanied a driver, his friend John J. Keilholtz, to pick up the prisoners at the end of a workday. He said that they had been working that day with no guard, and at that on the way home, Keilholtz stopped at a liquor store, bought a fifth of whiskey, and “about 50 yards from the main gate of the camp, he pulled over behind some bushes and the seven of [them] killed that bottle of booze.” Stull had talked to a 19-year-old prisoner who spoke English, and who told him that he was “forced to join the German army under penalty of death.”

Carroll James, a Hagerstown resident, recalled stopping by a farm east of Thurmont, where he spotted POWs working with no guard in sight.

Harold Stull (no relation to Wilson) received ten POWs on his farm between October and November 1944 to help him and his wife shuck corn. He also recalls a navy man there named Hans von Reiter who had attended Oxford and spoke perfect English. On the days that Reiter worked, there was no guard. “The army had entrusted the work party to him.” Reiter’s aunt lived in Silver Spring and had always sent him new clothes. Stull remembered one American soldier who had returned from the war and was placed as a guard. “I guess the visions of his friends being killed by the Germans was crystal clear in his mind because on the first day, a couple of the prisoners gave him a bit of trouble and he beat the hell out of them with the butt of his rifle.”

Harold Stull also recalled that some of the soldiers were in their forties and were pulled from the farms to be put into the army. Others were college professors who “knew more about Frederick County history than most residents.”

A collection of letters to and from Richard Lebherz, an American soldier and resident of Frederick County who was deployed to France and Germany in World War II, gives some further insights into the sentiments surrounding the German POWs. In a letter to Richard from Mrs. B.O. Thomas, Sr., a friend of the family, dated September 26, 1944, she described the activities of the POWs: “German Prisoners are in the old CCC Camp across the road. They have been digging a ditch across to the old well for their water. They laugh and play with Billy. Billy carries a wooden gun and imitates the armed guard with them. At rest periods they carry Billy around and pass him from one to the other to hold. It does not seem possible that these same men are capable of the horrible crimes they have committed in enemy country.”

Later, on November 9, 1944, Thomas wrote another letter to Lebherz mentioning the POWS, this time in a more negative light. The letter does not state why she changed her mind about her feelings towards them, but the passage concerning the POWs comes directly after a paragraph about a memorial service to be held for the Frederick soldiers who had died in the war. She wrote, “I have no illusions about the Prisoners here. I wish we did not have to look at them ever. I feel sure they are Nazi Youth as some of them are very young. It will take us older people a long time to over come our distrust,—if we ever do. More and more I know the difficulty of the command ‘Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.’”

Lebherz’s aunt Mayetta Hershberger, an executive of the U.S. Employment Service, sent a letter to Richard on October 4, 1944, also discussing the prisoners briefly: “We have now three hundred German prisoners of war here and my office is responsible for seeing that they are put to work. They are stationed at the old C.C.Camp across from the Catoctin Country Club. They certainly are a sad looking lot and so very young.”

On November 19, 1944, Patsy Heffelfinger, believed to be the Chief of Civilian Personnel at Camp Detrick, wrote to Richard: “In case you haven’t come face to face with any living Nazis this is to inform you that we have them working at the depot and whenever they are injured an MP brings them to me and I either do the honors or send them to their Dr. I’ve been both smiled at and Heil’d! Frankly, if every one of them accidently [sic] slit their throats I’d inwardly feel a sense of relief.”

In a letter from Lebherz, who was in France at the time, to his parents on December 11, 1944, he responded to the news of a German POW camp being in Frederick with disgust: “Aunt Mayetta wrote me that there are three hundred German Prisoners across from The Club, and I can imagine now Frederick must be perplexed as to how they should be treated. I hope not kindly at any rate. How ridiculous life can make things. There they are in Frederick hoping to get back to Germany, and here I am dreaming of getting back to Frederick. Now, does that make sense. Nevertheless, don’t let yourselves be fooled by them with their look of innocences [sic], as many of the ones you will see, probably have killed many American soldiers with no feeling except fanaticism and cold emotional tactics. Don’t be fooled! That is the most important thing at the present moment. We must not allow Germany to fool us once again.”

Richard’s mother, Mary Lebherz, wrote to him on March 19, 1945, “Yesterday we went up to the German prison camp, and it just burned me up, to see how well they are treated over here, and to know how they treat our boys over there.”

Recently, on February 11, 2004, a very sentimental letter was sent to the Frederick News-Post in response to an article entitled “The Golden Mile: Then and now,” which was published February 1 and had mentioned Camp Frederick. Dolly M. Burdette of Bunker Hill, West Virginia recalled that when she and her husband were newlyweds, her husband had worked as head dairyman on a farm in Ceresville and had driven the POWs to and from work. He “would pick up about 10 POWs, and they climbed in the back of the farm truck, with one guard. I remember the prisoners as being young, handsome, polite and hard workers.” She also stated that after the war ended, some of the prisoners said they “did not want to go home. They would rather stay here because this is the greatest country in the world.” She then thanked the paper for bringing back those happy memories.

 

Read more from this 5 part series:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 (current) | Part 5

Photos Courtesy: David Rathbun