This is the second 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.
Life in the POW Camp
Life in the POW camp could be strenuous, but prisoners also enjoyed some freedoms. There were strict restrictions on the workday of the prisoners, ensuring their productivity but providing the needed rest and downtime to maintain them as effective workers. POWs could work no more than ten hours a day and be away from the camp for no more than twelve hours a day. In many cases, contractors were responsible for providing transportation, and the prisoners had a right to a lunch break and were not to be physically mistreated in any way.
The POWs would make an average of 80 cents per day that they were allowed to keep—the pay already earned by a German private—as compared to a normal civilian worker who would receive four or five dollars a day. This provided at least three dollars a day to the Maryland treasury, in the long run essentially allowing the POW program to pay for itself.
Interestingly, not only did the Maryland treasury benefit from POW labor, but prisoner labor created a 35 percent increase in Maryland’s tomato crop in 1945 alone. A 40 percent increase in Maryland’s overall agricultural productivity during the war years was also attributed to the work of the German POWs. At the national level, from June to December 1945, German and Italian POWs in Maryland saved the U.S government about five million dollars.
The Geneva Convention also declared that POWs must receive the same quality of diet as the captor’s soldiers. The diet in a Maryland POW camp consisted of an average of 3,500 calories a day and included rolled oats, milk, raised bread, and coffee for breakfast, and vegetables, bread, fruit, and water for lunch. Dinner might be soup, vegetables, salad, bread, and tea. Typical activities that the prisoners were permitted to participate in were athletic, cultural, educational, and religious. Some camps even formed small orchestras. POWs at Camp Frederick even leveled a field on which to play soccer.
Most soldiers were well treated and well behaved. In at least one instance at Frederick, however, a guard who had recently returned from service in Germany beat some prisoners severely with the butt of his rifle after the prisoners teased him. Wales, on the other hand, attested, “I never heard of any time when a gun was even pointed at a prisoner at the camp.” He explained that by the time he got to be a guard at the camp, the war was over and most of the men did not want to fight, but simply wanted to go home. In addition, there were 400 prisoners among 45 American guards who had received little training in handling the prisoners, and they could easily have been overtaken.
Some of the prisoners—especially Nazi sympathizers—became violent towards other prisoners or tried to escape. Most prisoners who managed to duck out of the camp guards’ sight and run off were recaptured within 24 hours. An article appeared in the Frederick News-Post on January 4, 1945 concerning the notification of the public in the event of a prisoner’s escape, in which the Mayor declared that he was “100 percent in accord with the suggestion that the community be promptly informed of any such escape.”
Some daring escapes did occur in Maryland. Two prisoners at Camp Frederick who had managed to secure unmarked clothes cut through the fence and walked backward away from the camp, eventually catching the bus at Braddock Heights. The driver was suspicious and called the police, and the two POWs were captured in Hagerstown. One of them was Peter Siegfried Muetzel, who preferred to escape to Cincinnati rather than go home to the Russian sector of Germany where his home had been destroyed.
The most dramatic escape occurred when the 21-year-old, English-speaking Hermann Pospiech eluded the FBI for five months after walking out of Camp Somerset in southern Maryland. He managed to get all the way to New York City, where he was found with a Social Security Card in his name and a U.S. Army discharge pin.
Strikes were also rare and mostly happened when the prisoners found their work to be too difficult or demanding—some protested because they felt their work was too closely related to the war effort, and therefore, in violation of the Geneva Convention. Others did not want to lift or remove objects that were too heavy, protesting tasks such as clearing out large trees in the winter. To deal with this problem, the “No Work, No Eat” policy of World War I was adopted by the provost marshal’s office, restricting an uncooperative prisoner’s diet to bread and water.
A 1944 article from a Maryland newspaper entitled “War Prisoners Wouldn’t Work: Those Here Put On Bread, Water Diet” describes this punishment being inflicted upon prisoners in “a camp near Frederick, Md.,” for protesting and refusing to work. Apparently, the tactic worked as leaders of the camp received “a promise to work [the next] day.”
Due to the success of the first two stages of the POW program, in 1944 the War Department developed a new project as part of its third and final phase of development: changing the political views of the prisoners from National Socialism to political democracy. The project was called the Prisoner of War Special Projects Division (POWSPD) and especially took off in 1945 after it was clear that the Third Reich was destined to fall. Since the Geneva Code did not allow the POWSPD to force its ideas upon the prisoners, the program was voluntary, and was euphemistically entitled “Intellectual Diversion.”
It should be stated that most of the prisoners did not support Adolph Hitler or the fascist regime in Germany, and only an estimated eight to ten percent of the total German POW population were known to be adamant Nazi sympathizers. Some of the more militant Nazis were known to harass less committed soldiers. Others burned copies of Der Ruf (The Call), an anti-Nazi newspaper written by German POWs across the United States and overseen by the POWSPD. It was based in Rhode Island at the German POW camp, Camp Kearney.
Those prisoners who refused to integrate into regular camp life were placed in segregated camps with each other, one of which was in Oklahoma. The POWSPD program chose to focus more instead on anti-Nazis and political moderates, “stimulating individualism among them and eroding uncritical habits.” One method used to help transform the prisoners psychologically was to show them graphic images, such as piles of naked, starved corpses, or to hang up posters with these images throughout the camp. Der Ruf also included haunting images and detailed information about the concentration camps in Europe.
One major part of the political indoctrination of the prisoners was the POWSPD’s dispatch of Assistant Executive Officers (AEOs) to the campsites to discuss and compare the histories of the United States and Germany. These AEOs attempted to convince prisoners that the German past had been riddled with failures due to their governments, while the American commitment to democracy had helped it develop so successfully. They hoped to instill in the prisoners the idea that democracy was the best option for rebuilding Germany after the war.
Photos Courtesy: David Rathbun