Maryland’s POW Camps in World War II
By Ellen Moyer
The sirens whistled. Lights went off, black curtains blanketed windows. It was 1942. World War II was raging 3,000 miles away. All along the East Coast blackout drills were preparing citizens against Hitler’s Luftwaffe that were blitzing London. My father was the neighborhood air raid warden. During blackout drills he searched the neighborhood for any light ray that could alert an enemy in the sky.
Saturdays were movie time. Roy Rogers and Woody Woodpecker may have been features, but it was the newsreels, that showed us what life could be like. Bombs falling, people huddled in air raid shelters, soldiers slugging through mud. It was not a pretty picture.
A mile from my home an antiaircraft site was prepared to protect us. In backyards and in vacant lots neighbors united to plant vegetables that would be canned for future use. In 1942 there were 18 million victory gardens across America. Gas and sugar were rationed. Nylons were a luxury.
Too young to comprehend everything about war, I definitely knew something terrible was happening. Only months before on a rainy day I sat on the floor in our new house listening to the radio reports on Pearl Harbor. Later, letters from my Uncle Ed, who served in North Africa, would arrive with parts cut out — my first experience with censored communication.
Along historic Joppa Road my playmates and I would see open Army trucks caravan with cargos of young men. We would gather to watch the parade and smile and wave. Some waved back; others looked sullen.
Who were these young men? It wasn’t long before we heard they were German prisoners of war (POW) and were returning to a camp, here in our country, after a day of working on a farm. These German brigades, filling in for our absent men, were responsible for saving Maryland’s tomato crop.
During the war years of 1942-1946 the United States sheltered over 500,000 prisoners of war. Most were Germans, but Italians were included too. Under the rules of war set by the Geneva Convention of 1929, prisoners were to be housed safely and fed well. With an Army on the move in North Africa and throughout Europe, this was a management nightmare. When Liberty ships arrived with supplies at allied ports, they returned across the Atlantic with human cargo that enemy submarines would not attack. Almost every state had a POW camp.
Maryland had 19 prison sites, small work camps. All prisoners coming into Maryland went through Fort Meade before moving on to one of the smaller work camps. Fort Meade housed 2,000 prisoners. The first arrivals at Fort Meade included 1,632 Italians and only 58 Germans. Over time German prisoners dominated the population. Prisoners were enlisted to work in jobs in short supply of men. They picked apples, harvested Maryland’s melons and tomatoes, quarried stone, served as crews in firehouses, built bridges and parks facilities. It is estimated that overall, POWs saved food harvests from rotting in the fields and saved America $5 billion dollars in 1940 dollars.
The Geneva Convention required that prisoners be paid for work. They were paid in scrip that could be used in camp canteens or saved for special occasions. Once, scrip was used to pay for a train ticket for a prisoner to join his brother who was housed in a Chicago POW camp.
Hollywood movies were shown at camp. Prisoners could stage their own shows, engage in athletic contests, even write a newsletter. Education classes were offered. Life was reasonable for the majority who would return home with a favorable impression of their captors and the country they represented. Journalist John Kelly writing in the Washington Post tells a story of a repatriated prisoner from Camp 8 in Gaithersburg writing to owners of the farm where he had worked, expressing his gratitude for their kindness and asking for help for a packet of food in short supply in devastated Germany.
Camp life was not all hunky-dory. Hard-core Nazis would beat up and kill those they thought were too friendly with American guards. They were isolated into barbed wire compounds and closely guarded. Some tried to escape, but all were apprehended. A decorated submarine commander was killed in his attempt to escape and is buried in a cemetery at Fort Meade with others who died while in captivity.
Fort Meade also housed 384 German, Italian and Japanese immigrant residents arrested as potential “fifth column” collaborators with the enemy. Most were exonerated. Many worked at a bakery that produced 12,000 loaves of bread a day.
Today there is little trace of Americas POW camps. Fort Meade, named for the Civil War general and commander of the Army of the Potomac, still thrives as a major recruiting and training Army base. For most Americans, WWII is a kaleidoscope of Normandy, Auschwitz and unimaginable atrocities. We know about the war through movies such as Schindler’s List and recent events honoring the last of the WWII survivors. Cement watchtowers are curious remnants of this period along the coast of Maryland and Delaware.
Little-known, however, is the unity of Americans to work together for the common good to support the war efforts. Almost every family purchased a $25 war bond and contributed to victory gardens.
Citizens, in an unprecedented spirit of unity, collaborated, cooperated and contributed to defeat the enemy and to bring our men and women home in victory.
Ellen, a former mayor of Annapolis, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org