Story revives memories of oft-forgotten York County POW camp
This drawing gives an idea of the size and scope of Camp Stewartstown, the World War II German prisoner of war camp in southeastern York County, Pa. Now, the former camp is a park and baseball field next to the Presbyterian Church in Stewartstown. (Click on image to enlarge.) Background posts: ‘Yesteryears’ chock-full of southern York County, Pa., sites, York County has done its share of playing host to POWs and German prisoners from two wars came to York County.
The late Eugene Blevins, of Blevins Orchards, once recalled picking apples on his family’s farm with a dozen German POWs from Stewartstown.
“They were ordinary guys,” he said. “I liked them. But some of them cut swastikas in the apples. We just threw them away. No point in making a big deal about it.”
That one story shows the ambivalence of those living in the area the POW camp filled with German prisoners in the summer of 1944-45.
Mike Argento told this story and others in capturing the Stewartstown scene those summers, in a well-written piece running in the York Sunday News April 14:
Construction workers were busy adding a new kitchen recently to the community center on the Stewartstown Fairgrounds.
Gypsum dust from the drywall hung in the air. The screech of a circular saw cut through the din of hammers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd played on a boom box.
Ron Trout took a look around. The building was pretty much the same as it had been six decades ago. The basketball court was still surrounded by wooden posts on the sidelines — their presence providing potentially painful obstacles to players chasing balls out of bounds. The stage still stood at the one end.
Some things had changed, a lot, since the days Trout misspent part of his youth in the building.
“Over there,” he said, pointing to a corner, “was where the canteen was. The pinball machine was over there.”
Venturing outside, Trout nodded toward the barbecue pit. “The motor pool was over there,” he said.
Walking toward the baseball field, he said, “That was all tents.”
And all of those tents were occupied by America’s mortal enemy — German soldiers.
Those were the waning days of World War II, when the Stewartstown Fairgrounds was converted into a POW camp. Today, there is nothing to indicate that the German prisoners of war once encamped there. There isn’t even a historical marker.
Trout, now 68, remembers it, though. He was just a kid, growing up in the last house on College Avenue, right across the street from the entrance to the fairgrounds.
The POW camp was his playground.
It wasn’t a playground for the 2,000-or-so German prisoners of war who spent two summers there toward the end of the war, after the camp opened on June 30, 1944.
“One day it was just there,” Trout recalls.
German prisoners were housed there in the summers of 1944 and 1945, spending their days toiling in the fields and canneries and other seasonal industries around Stewartstown, Shrewsbury, New Freedom and other southern York County towns. They spent the winter at Fort Indiantown Gap, one of the main POW camps in the Northeast, and worked in non-defense industries.
Many of the POWs recalled later that they were just kids, caught up in the Nazi war machine, and were glad to be anywhere other than the Ardennes or the banks of the Rhine – sites of the Nazis’ last stands of the war. Being imprisoned in southern York County and spending their days canning tomatoes or digging potatoes – all in accordance with the Geneva Conventions – was a lot better than dying for a cause few of them truly believed in.
The camp in Stewartstown – and others throughout the United States – solved two problems, housing the huge number of German prisoners captured as the war wound down and providing cheap workers to farms and canneries that faced labor shortages during the war.
* * *
It all started with Charlie Summers.
His family, according to local historian Robert Shaub, ran the Charles G. Summers Cannery in New Freedom. During the war, the cannery had a tough time finding help. A lot of the young men who picked crops and canned them were in the service. Young women could have taken over, but many of them were working for the defense contractors in York.
Summer learned that German POWs might be available to provide labor. POWs were in the state, housed in 14 camps spread around the commonwealth. The main camp was at Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, too far away to provide day labor to the farms and canneries in southern York County.
Stewartstown offered the use of its fairgrounds. Other farmers and canners signed on to Summers’ request to get prisoner labor for their businesses.
And soon, Stewartstown took its place in World War II history.
* * *
Shaub remembered the German prisoners toiling in the fields of his family farm, just west of Shrewsbury. He was in school at the time, but he remembers coming home from classes and driving a tractor out to the fields to carry water to the men digging potatoes.
He was told not to talk to the men.
Shaub’s father, Alvin, would drive to the camp in Stewartstown and load a group of prisoners into the back of his stake-bed cattle truck. The guard would ride in the cab, Robert Shaub recalled.
The prisoners would work from dawn to dusk, breaking only for lunch. They were paid a nickel for every bushel of crops they picked. The money went to the Defense Department, which, in turn, paid the prisoners in scrip that could be used to buy necessities at the camp canteen.
Some of the pay went into saving accounts for prisoners, money that was given to them when they returned home. It wasn’t much, and with runaway inflation and economic chaos in post-war Germany, it was even less. Shaub said one former POW told him his savings bought a loaf of bread when he returned home.
Shaub, now 77, has an extensive collection of artifacts from the POW camp. He gives talks at local historical societies and is planning to write a book on the subject. He and his wife, Margaret, visited some of the former POWs in Germany last year.
The number of southern York County residents with first-hand memories of the camp continues to dwindle.
* * *
This wasn’t York County’s first place for POWs. Camp Security in Springettsbury Township opened in 1781 for Revolutionary War prisoners taken at the Battle of Saratoga in New York and at Yorktown, Va.
About 1,500 prisoners and their families and Continental Army guards and their families lived in the camp. An epidemic killed hundreds, who were buried on the grounds. The camp closed in 1783.
This country’s use of POW labor dates back to the Revolution. A history compiled by the Defense Department describes how some prisoners from that war were put to work as blacksmiths, weavers, tailors, shoemakers and bakers. Some even made weapons that would be used to maim and kill their fellow countrymen.
POWs provided labor during just about every war since. By the time World War II came around, it was more than a tradition. The use of POW labor was specifically spelled out in the Geneva Conventions, intended to make sure prisoners taken during wartime were treated humanely. The Geneva Conventions forbid slave labor and required that POWs be treated as employees and not as free workers.
The Defense Department’s service manual – the not-so-elegantly titled “M811: Handbook for Work Supervisors of Prisoners of War Labor” – codified the restrictions of the Geneva Conventions and added a few insights intended to make sure POWs were treated well.
“He is not a criminal,” the manual states. “In serving his country, he has done no wrong. He is not a convict. He is a soldier.”
Some of them weren’t even really soldiers.
* * *
Early on, the prisoners of war sent to the Stewartstown camp were from Rommel’s
North Africa Corps – battle-hardened troops and true believers. They were told that America was in ruins, and the war was going in their favor.
These were all lies.
One POW later told Shaub that he bought the lies. But as he was shipped to America from North Africa – a trip that started at the Suez Canal, rounded Africa’s Cape Horn and crossed the South Atlantic, winding up in Texas – he saw a lot of cargo boats headed east. He thought the shipping lanes belonged to his country.
Then, he told Shaub later, as he rode by train from Texas to Pennsylvania, he saw that America wasn’t in ruins, that he had been lied to.
Later, the prisoners sent to Stewartstown were merely kids.
One of them was Andreas Neuhauser.
He was 16 when he was conscripted into the German army.
It was 1944, Germany was near defeat and was running out of soldiers. The SS, elite Nazi troops, came to Neuhauser’s home and told his mother that he either joined the army or the entire family would be sent to a labor camp. Neuhauser joined the army.
His career as a soldier was short-lived. His squad’s battlefield experience was limited to hunkering down in a church basement near Hebron in western Germany and waiting for the Americans to capture them. His sergeant was an experienced soldier who saw no need for the kids he was leading to be killed in what was looking like a lost cause. Hitler had pledged to fight to the last soldier, and Neuhauser said his sergeant didn’t think one of his men should be that last soldier.
“It was a very bad time,” Neuhauser said recently by phone from his home in Telheim, Germany.
He was sent to Fort Indiantown Gap and, eventually, to Stewartstown. He was far from home and a prisoner, but he was glad to be out of danger.
He worked on the Shaub farm, among other places. He picked fruit, beans and tomatoes and worked at a cannery.
After the war, he went home, worked as a mason and got on with his life – just like any soldier. He recently celebrated his 80th birthday.
* * *
The residents of Stewartstown didn’t have contact with the prisoners. They’d see them behind the fence and the barbed wire that was strung between the trees lining the fairgrounds. But the prisoners were off-limits.
The American guards, though, did socialize with the locals. Trout recalls some of them lounging in his front yard and on the porch of his family’s house when they were off-duty. He’d go over to the camp and play the pinball machine in the canteen. For a group of men guarding prisoners, they seemed fairly relaxed.
“I don’t think too many people were allowed to go in there, but I was a little kid,” Trout said. “What was I going to do?”
Nobody can remember any attempts by the prisoners to escape. For one thing, many of them probably didn’t know where they were, and if they had managed to escape, they had nowhere to go. The area around the camp was pretty sparse. Just west of the camp was the town. In the three other directions, there were open fields, some broken by thin treelines.
The soldiers frequented town. There wasn’t a lot to do. There was a movie theater and a restaurant. One resident, Bill Grien, lived on Main Street back then. He recalled seeing the soldiers in town and going to the PX at the camp to buy chewing gum – 65 cents for a carton.
“They were good guys,” Grien, now 75, said.
Well, maybe not all of them.
Grien recalled that some of the soldiers took a liking to some of the local girls. One of the girls, after becoming romantically involved with a soldier, abruptly left town after the relationship waned.
“It was just rumors around town,” he said.
* * *
Then, the camp was gone.
“One day, they were here, and the next, they were gone,” Trout recalled.
It would have been October 1945, when the camp closed down and the United States starting sending the POWs home.
The camp reverted to a fairgrounds. The canteen and PX became the community center. The kitchen is the concession stand. The once-empty fields around the fairgrounds are now dotted with suburban-style homes – Stewartstown Station, it’s called. They play American Legion and Susquehanna League baseball where the prisoners were once encamped.
There is little trace that they’d ever been there.
POW camps dotted nation
During World War II, some 360,000 German prisoners of war were housed at camps in the United States.
The camps were far-flung and were in every state except Nevada, North Dakota and Vermont, according to Defense Department records. There were 175 main camps and 511 smaller camps scattered throughout the U.S., most in the southern states to save money from heating the camps in the winter.
There were 15 camps in Pennsylvania. The main one was at Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County.
Others included the Tobyhanna Military Reservation in Monroe County, Olmstead Field in Middletown, Camp Cumberland in New Cumberland and a scattering of camps around Gettysburg and throughout Adams County.
There were three camps in Adams County, because of the need for labor to harvest the county’s large apple crop and because the federal government already owned significant tracts of land in the county.
The camp at Stewartstown was a seasonal camp, used only during summer months.
A short history of POW labor
Prisoner of war labor goes back as far as war, and civilization, itself.
In ancient China, history records, prisoners of war were enslaved. The ancient Greeks and Romans also captured POWs for use as slave labor.
American history records POW labor being used during the Revolutionary War. Captured British soldiers with skills were put to work in a variety of trades, from blacksmiths to coopers to bakers.
Treatment of POWs was codified during the Third Geneva Conventions in 1929. The conventions established a number of reforms in respect to the treatment of prisoners.
Articles 27 through 32 detail the use of POW labor. Among the conditions:
· Enlisted soldiers are required to perform work, as long as it isn’t dangerous and does not support the war effort. Non-commissioned officers could work only in supervisory roles, and commissioned officers aren’t required to work at all.
· POWs could perform industrial or agricultural work, everything from harvesting potatoes and tomatoes to mining coal to brewing beer, as long as it wasn’t tied to military contracting.
· POWs were to be paid for their work and were supposed to get at least one day off a week.