From 1944 to 1946, the German prisoners called five POW camps in the Upper Peninsula home: Camps AuTrain and Evelyn in Alger County, Camp Raco in Chippewa County and Camps Sidnaw and Pori in Houghton County. Brought in under a cloak of secrecy by the U.S. Army, the prisoners eventually encountered local residents, who were reluctant to accept the POWs.
The project, which took two years to complete, contains many scenes shot throughout the Upper Peninsula. Also included in the 161-minute documentary are hundreds of historic photos, vintage film and interviews with local residents who had encounters with the POWs.
Excerpts from January 1945: (emphasis added; skipped days are not marked)
15th - Monday - Quarters now available for Officers but no Cook. Weather, continued mild. Moving Pictures shown 3 times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Mr B.C. Garrity K. of C. Supervisor in charge. Tonight "The Great Moment" was shown at 1900 hrs.
18th - Thursday - Dull and moderate wind. Engineers rushing completion of Outside Wire. ... Free Bingo for the Men in the evening in the K. of C. Hut.
20th - Saturday - Clear and cold, 20 degrees below at 0600 hrs. Capt. McFadyen, Medical Officer and Lt. Hankey, Interpreter reported.
24th - Wednesday - No change in weather. Fire caused by a Gas Explosion in Hut 11 within the Enclosure at 1630 hrs. Fire Brigade responded promptly and had blaze extinguished at 1650 hrs. Court of Inquiry ordered immediately by Camp Commandant.
Information received that first batch of PW consisting of 403 Officers, 105 O.Rs. and 15 Civilians would arrive at 0650 hrs. 29 Jan 45; 36 Coy V.G.C. to suply the Escort.
26th - Friday - ... Moving Picture, "Adventures of Tartu" shown in K. of C. Hut at 1900 hrs. Dance held at 2100 hrs. in Separate School Hall for the benefit of the Camp Personnel.
29th - Monday - Weather quite cool, 13 degrees below. 523 PW arrived from Seebe Camp, unloading started at 0845 hrs and all PW searched and in quarters by Noon. Tower Guard mounted at 0800 hrs. Moving Picture shown "Then We Were Young and Gay" at 1900 hrs.
Filmmaker Eva Colmers follows her father's story - Theo Melzer - who spent three and a half years in a POW camp in Lethbridge, Alberta. Growing up in Germany, she had always been puzzled by her father's fond memories of his POW life, so when she moved to Canada, she set out to rediscover this story. What she found surprised her. Watch as Theo Melzer, along with other POWs, recount how their lives were changed by the unexpected respect and dignity they received at the hands of their Canadian captors.
Lethbridge, AB is about 500 km (310 miles) south of Wainwright, AB.
Watch online for free, courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada. It's well worth your time.
The November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine featured the Christmas Eve escape of 25 German POWs from a camp in Arizona during WWII.
According to the article:
Nearly 400,000 German POWs were brought to the United States during World War II, and officials recorded precisely 2,222 individual attempts by the Germans to flee their camps...
But none of these assorted breakouts could match in audacity, scale, or drama the plan under way at Compound 1A at Papago Park. It would trigger the largest manhunt in Arizona history, bringing in local law enforcement, the FBI, and even Papago Indian scouts.
Their "not so great escape" title seems unfair, but here's a taste of what the author may have had in mind:
While he was still on that call, another phone rang. It was the sheriff in Phoenix reporting he had an escaped POW in custody. Herbert Fuchs, a twenty-two-year-old U-boat crewman, had quickly grown tired of being wet, cold, and hungry and hitchhiked a ride to the sheriff's office. Soon thereafter, a Tempe woman called to say that two escapees had knocked on her door and surrendered; the phone rang again, and a Tempe man reported that two hungry and cold POWs had turned themselves in to him.
It took over a month to re-capture all of the escaped POWs, but all were eventually returned to camp.
In 2001, The Phoenix New Times covered the release of a play called Escape from Papago Park.
The play retells the story of "the greatest breakout from a United States compound by prisoners of war during World War II."
During WWII, Papago Park in Phoenix, AZ housed 3,100 German POWs. Just before Christmas in 1944, 25 German soldiers escaped through a 178 foot tunnel. All were later recaptured.
One of those POWs, Heinrich Palmer said:
People think we were anxious to leave, some great group of prisoners storming back to the battlefront. But we were just young and bored. Or maybe it was this: The Americans put a bunch of German comrades from the same navy in the same compound. These men had great engineering talent. The Americans took away their freedom, called them troublemakers and told them they could never escape. So maybe it became our duty to prove them wrong. And it was very, very easy to prove them wrong.
As noted last Monday, POW camp Wainwright was known as Internment Camp No. 135. Here's the first of several excerpts from the official War Diary.
5th - Friday - Capt. B.G. Ashbury, Adjutant was first member of Camp Staff to arrive.
6th - Saturday - Lt. Col. C.G. Bradshaw, New Camp Commandant and Capt. St.G.D. Clarke, QuarterMaster arrived. As no quarters or Rations were available, they had to go "On Command" and live at Wainwright Hotel.
7th - Sunday - Camp Staff consists of 3 Officers and the Colonel's Batman Smillie. Everyone busy trying to get equipment to start an Orderly Room.
8th - Monday - ... Two Officers and 54 O.Rs of No. 36 Coy. V.G.C. arrived from Medicine Hat.
9th - Tuesday - ... One officer and 20 O.Rs. of No. 36 Coy V.G.C. Advance Guard from Neys Camp, arrived.
10th - Wednesday - Ordnance removing Stores from buildings that will be inside Enclosure. 150 Engineers and 40 Civilians working on Enclosure Wire and lights. Frost has gone into ground 5'7", so digging post holes is a slow job.
11th - Thursday - Weather mild. Two Officers and 113 O.Rs. belonging to No. 36 Coy V.G.C. arrived to act as Guard Coy. ...
Batman Smillie - [updated] a batman is an officer's orderly or servant
Corps of First World War veterans between the ages of 40 and 65, formed in May 1940, for full-time and reserve service during the Second World War. It grew to 10,000 men in 1944 with another 8,000 on part-time service. The great majority served in Canada with a few companies in Newfoundland, London (England), Nassau (Bahamas) and Georgetown (Guyana). Some veterans stood guard power plants, factories and other installations deemed essential to the war effort but most served as guards at the POW and enemy aliens internment camps in Canada. In 1944-1945, some went to India and Burma as “mule skinners”. The Veteran’s Guard continued to serve after the war until March 1947 when the last veterans were disbanded.
The above image should be easy to read, but here's the text in case it's useful:
Der Marktplatz war etwas erleuchtet, und als ich an einer Hauswand entlangschlich, blieb ich plötzlich wie angewurzelt stehen, starrte an die Wand ... Mein eigenes Bild blickte mich an, darunter stand meine Personalbeschreibung – kalt lief es mir den Rücken herunter; das Gefühl, vor dem eigenen Steckbrief zu stehen, ist nur schwer zu beschreiben; aber ich hatte nicht lange Zeit, meinen Gefühlen nachzuhängen, - nur schnell aus diesem Ort hinaus, dachte ich und eilte weiter.
The market place was barely lit and while sneaking along the wall of a building, I stopped suddenly as if rooted to the ground, stared at the wall ... My own picture looked back at me, underneath was my description – chills ran down my back; the feeling of standing in front of your own wanted poster is quite hard to describe; but I didn’t have a long time to dwell on my feelings, - just quickly get out of this place, I thought and hurried along.
Based on the 1956 book by Kendal Burt and James Leasor, The One That Got Away chronicles the true story of Oberleutnant Franz von Werra.
An interesting site on "Aces of the Luftwaffe" provides some details:
Von Werra was captured and imprisoned in England. He twice attempted to escape...but was recaptured both times. After his second failed escape attempt, von Werra was sent to a prison camp in Canada. He managed to escape...and made his way through the USA, Mexico, South America and Spain to reach Germany...Von Werra was the only German prisoner of war held by the British to successfully escape and return to his homeland.
For instance, this from a man named Jim Fitzgerald:
I remember as a nine year old walking home from the fourth grade we would pass the E.G. Morse Poultry house in Mason City, Iowa and see the POWs working, loading trucks and the like. We thought they were monsters until we started waving at them and they waved back, which started a relationship that has lasted till this day.
Here's one from Marjorie Myers Douglas:
I spread a faded blue tea towel over the loaves where the sunshine would help them rise, and I listened in growing bewilderment to his conversation.
“Am I talking to the officer in charge?” he asked. “Can you send me twenty of the prisoners tomorrow to stack hay bales—probably two days’ work? I’ll pay four dollars per man. By eight o’clock? And you’ll send a guard? And their food also? Sounds okay to me—tomorrow then.”
“What in the world? What prisoners?” I gasped as soon as he put the phone down.
“The mailman gave me the idea,” Don gloated. “Can you believe it? There are German prisoners of war in a temporary camp at Ortonville—just twenty miles away. We didn’t see it the day I drove you over there to Big Stone Lake. I’d never even heard of it. But they hire out the men to farms around here. I plan to get Bill Ahrens over to interpret. I’ll put a skid on the other tractor. Twenty prisoners as farm hands! We’re all set.”
In 1944, it was decided to site a POW Camp here and on 29 January 1945 the first 523 German prisoners arrived. At its peak, the POW Camp accommodated almost 1,100 German POW's, consisting of Officers, enlisted men and a few civilians, and operated until 24 May 1946 when the last of the POW's were returned to England for demobilization. The Camp staff and Guard company were reduced to nil strength a few weeks later, marking the end of this chapter of CFB/ASU Wainwright's history.
Note that POWs were held for a year after the war ended. That's a story in itself.
This part will be familiar to those who have read the book!
During the 16 months the POW Camp was in full operation, only two prisoners made a successful escape. These two bold individuals were recaptured just over a month later, but not until they had reached Gary, Indiana!
Going back to the beginning: On 8 July 1940, a little less than one year after the closure of Buffalo National Park, Dr. Middlemass, the Mayor of Wainwright, travelled to Ottawa and persuaded the Department of National Defence to take over the vacant park as a military training area. His efforts were successful and in 1941, the first military forces arrived to establish a permanent camp at the site of the park.
The Coos County Democrat featured a small reunion that took place recently at a WW2 POW camp located in Stark, NH.
According to the article:
two former camp workers and one German ex-prisoner-of-war returned to the site to reflect on their time spent in Camp Stark during World War II, and the unlikely friendships that formed amongst the soldiers, civilians, and POWs on both sides of the fence.
In 2007, Storyline Entertainment released a documentary called Hitler's Canadian's. From the press release
This one-hour documentary tells the little known story of German POWs in Canada during WW2. It features dramatic re-enactments of brilliant and hilarious escapes, the biggest prison rebellion in Canadian history and surprising interviews with former prisoners.
They explain why POWs were sent to Canada:
In 1940, before the U.S. entered WW II in 1941, the growing ranks of German prisoners in Britain presented an urgent problem. Straining to meet the Geneva Convention standards for POW treatment and with Nazi armies nearing their shores, Britain saw the POWs as a potential threat on their own soil and opted to send them to Canada.
Here's a theme that will be encountered often:
Without exception, the former POWs seen in “Hitler’s Canadians” were grateful for Canada’s hospitality and treatment. All of them realize that if it weren’t for their time behind Canadian barbed wire, they might not have survived the war.
And some hard data:
Between 1947 and 1960, 265,000 Germans immigrated to Canada. 6,000 of them were former POWs.
Klaus Conrad was one of the POWs interviewed in the documentary.
I enjoyed the video and will have more in a future post.
Blogger Lou Lohman published a nice review of Canadian Escapades on LouCeel.
He was kind enough to grant permission for us to reproduce in full. (Emphasis added.)
A short while ago I volunteered to read and review a new book, written by a WWII P.O.W. The book was to be a recounting of his three escapes from prison camp and his subsequent recaptures. The unique aspect to all of this was (and is) that the man was a German Flier shot down over England, his prison camp was in Western Canada, and one of his escapes took him into and across part of the United States.
The second unique aspect to all of this is the format of the book. It's actually a fairly short book at 125 pages, including the short appendix. But each page in the book is half German, half English, laid out side by side, so the text matches up. But back to that in a minute.
The story, in English, is an almost literal translation from the German. For a native English speaker, this represents a novel look into the way a non-English person thinks and speaks. The story itself is gripping, in parts, fascinating in others, and overall, well done. There are times, however, when the story gets to be a bit tricky to follow - due to the literalness of the translation. But still, well done.
Now about that side by side text. For the student of German, this is a novel way to explore the language as it is spoken by a native German speaker - for a German speaker, it also represents a novel way to see their language explode into English.
In addition to being a (true) adventure story, Canadian Escapades sheds light on an interesting period of history. I'll bet that few people in the US and Canada realize how many POWs were held here. (None of us did.)
We're certainly not experts, but we've been doing some research and are ready to start sharing what we learn. There are lots of good stories to tell!
If you have suggestions, corrections, tips, links, etc. please add a comment or send us email.
Of course we'll also cover news about the book -- it's not too late to request a free review copy!