This is the fifth 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.
One Soldier’s Story: Erich Pahlow
POW and native Berliner Erich Pahlow is one example of a prisoner who managed to build a lifelong relationship with some of the people he met while serving in Frederick. He corresponded regularly with Charles Thomas and returned to Frederick in 1980 to visit Charles’ mother, Mrs. George Leicester Thomas, at the Buckeystown farm where Pahlow had worked. Pahlow spoke in his own words about his experience as a POW in a number of articles printed by the Frederick News-Post and Frederick Magazine.
Before the war began, Pahlow lived in Berlin with his wife and three children, and worked as a commercial artist. “I had a lot of American friends and personally had no reason to be against the U.S. But when political powers go to war, the rest of us are forced to follow.”
He was drafted in 1940 at the age of 30 and was captured in 1943 in Lyon, France by a young American lieutenant. “All he did was grab my gun and throw it to the ground. The American just asked me where I lived and then proceeded to tell me that he had studied in Heidelberg.” Pahlow continued by adding, “I never even had to use that gun. People don’t realize how much listless sitting and waiting there is on the battlefield. The only way to keep sane is to stay occupied, so I drew a lot and painted.”
He, along with other prisoners, were taken to Oran, Tunisia and then arrived in Norfolk, Virginia after a 16-day trip on an aircraft carrier. “The crossing was the hardest part of the war for me. Each moment took me farther from home to some unknown place…I couldn’t even tell my wife that I was alive.”
After picking apples in Winchester, Virginia for one season, he was transported to Frederick, where he cleared land on farms. He also had to clear the border of a lake by removing trees and debris where a dam for a Washington, D.C. reservoir would be constructed. He explained, “This was a hard job for an artist, felling trees with a saw and an ax from 8 ’til 4 every day.” He recalled going to Ft. Eustis on occasion to hear lectures about American life and democracy, and receiving lessons in English. He also remembered “a number of musicians among the P.O.W.s, who created a band with instruments donated to them by local churches and Frederick residents. They performed for the American G.I.s and officers each Saturday.”
Pahlow’s greatest relief was to be able to continue painting. “I kept up my art work and was soon asked to do signs and portraits for both Americans and Germans around Frederick County. The camp provided me with supplies and even a studio facing the north—the direction I suggested for the best light.” He even painted a Dutch scene on the kitchen wall of the Thomas’s house.
He was released in 1945 and said that his reunion with his wife was the greatest moment of their lives, even though they could not return to Berlin. “It was impossible… All of our friends and possessions were gone and the only inhabitants left in the city were Russian and American police. It was like a cage.” Pahlow soon received a letter of recommendation from the commanding officer at the prison camp and got a job with an advertising agency. The Thomas’s helped to support him and his family by sending clothing, food, and books.
Though Pahlow had fond memories of the farm, Charles Thomas, who was ten years old when Pahlow and the prisoners came to work for his father, recalled Camp Frederick being nicknamed the “Frederick Hilton,” and remembered making a family trip to the camp to see a Christmas play the POWs put on in December 1945.
He poignantly summed up how difficult it was for the prisoners and citizens of Frederick to get used to living with each other: “When the Germans first came, Americans were cold to them and feared them. Some of the first farmers to use the prisoners were even ostracized by the community. As time went on, however, those fears vanished and many people became quite close to the prisoners.”
Through the summer of 1945 to the spring of 1946, most of the German POWs in Maryland were sent back to Fort Meade, and eventually, home. Almost all of the 32,800 prisoners in the tri-state area were gone by August of 1946, except those who had violated military law or were in the hospital. An article from the Frederick News-Post from November 29, 1945 suggests that the camp may have had plans to shut down earlier, but had decided to remain open at least until January 1 of 1945, after “work contracts for the use of some 200 Germans had been renewed for 30 days.”
Not long after the POWs were gone, an auction occurred at the campsite on May 23, 1946, and over $4,500 was raised from the sale of the camp’s buildings and other salvaged materials. The Frederick Co-op Association was already at work restoring the site to its original farm field conditions.
Already on November 14, 1946, former POW Peter Siegfried Muetzel wrote to Quynn Orchard in Frederick, “requesting a copy of a picture of him and three friends taken November, 1945 in Frederick.” At the time the letter was written, Muetzel was serving as a POW in an English camp, but wrote of wanting to return to the United States someday, where he had seen the Ringling Brothers Circus with his parents prior to the war.
Ironically, many of the prisoners had visited the United States before the war and even had relatives or friends who had settled in the area in previous generations. Frederick itself was settled by Germans over 250 years ago, and now these young men who had ties of various kinds to the area or this country were being held here as prisoners. On the other side, enemy soldiers—who had fought for a government responsible for some of the most horrible atrocities in history—seemed to be inundating Frederick. But soon, it seemed that distrust and fear from both sides gave way to curiosity, friendship, and mutual benefits of various kinds.
As stated before, this may not have been true of all POW camps located in the United States during World War II, but it appears that in the small town of Frederick, life as a POW may not have been all that bad. Nevertheless, the strange mingling of the German POWs with American soldiers and civilians during World War II demonstrates the importance of viewing those foreign to us as individuals. Ultimately, those on both sides likely learned to see their “enemies” simply as people like themselves.
Photos Courtesy: David Rathbun