Richard D. L. Fulton

Note: Cover Photo (Never before published) Nazi medical officer poses near the High Water Mark on the Gettysburg Battlefield, 1939 (Source: National Park Service, Gettysburg). It was found by an NPS archivist while searching for materials for my book.

(Adapted from ‘Nazis’ in Gettysburg: World War II Comes to a Civil War Battlefield by Richard D. L. Fulton, pending publication.)

It’s amazing how much history has transpired on the Gettysburg battlefield that did not occur in 1863 and did not involve the collision of Union and Confederate troops.

One of those non-Civil War events occurred when the battlefield served as “home” to hundreds of German prisoners of war (who were referred to as PWs – POW being a post-World War II acronym).

As to why they were here, the war had drained the availability of military-aged men in the county (and in the country as a whole), that farmers were concerned over the resulting shortage of labor, that much of their produce would be lost before it could be harvested.

Given that the Geneva Convention allowed for the use of POW labor, as long as it was not directly employed in the production of war materials, a proposal was put forth and approved to establish POW camps around the country to house Germans to help in harvesting and other agriculturally related activities, thereby providing an opportunity for Adams County farmers to receive the much-needed labor.

The prisoners ultimately did not only help in the fields, but also in pulpwood cutting, and even in the canneries.

The first of what would be three PW compounds was constructed in 1944, when a 600-foot by 400-foot rectangular prisoner of war compound (paid by the Adams County Fruit Growers Association) was erected, paralleling Emmitsburg Road and Long Lane.

The compound consisted of rows of squad-sized tents for the prisoners, the German command tent, a canteen, the compound kitchen, two mess tents, wooden showers and latrines with concrete floors, and an exercise ground.  Adjacent to the POW compound was a section that included the quarters and associated structures utilized by the camp guard and support staff, shower and latrines, a kitchen, mess tent, administration tent, and storage and supply tents.

The entire compound, except for the portion inhabited by the army guards and staff, was surrounded by barbed wire, with a guard tower at each of the four corners of the barbed wire enclosure. Joan Thomas, daughter of the camp’s commander, Captain Laurence C. Thomas, noted that the camp guards were armed with machine guns.  This camp held 400 prisoners.

As winter approached, it was then decided to establish a new compound in the old, former Civilian Conservation Corps (which had also served as the headquarters—dubbed Camp Sharpe—for various units of the Ritchie Boys in preparation for their deployment on D-Day). 

The prisoners at the Emmitsburg Road camp had been reduced to 200 PWs, and these, along with the Army guards and staff, were relocated in November to the old CCC camp, located off West Confederate Avenue on the western slope of Seminary Ridge, which had been further modified by moving some of the structures and adding others. 

During December, the number of PWs grew to 42 German non-commissioned officers and 448 German enlisted men. The abandoned Emmitsburg camp was then dismantled. Captain Thomas was initially in command, but he was subsequently transferred to Camp Michaux (a secret World War II camp in Michaux State Forest for interrogating prisoners of war), and Captain James W. Copley (and later, Captain Clarence M. Morfit, Jr.) assumed command.

During the winter, PWs were mainly employed for cutting pulpwood. However, as spring approached, farmers became concerned that there was still not enough labor to handle the harvests and canning. This resulted in a third PW compound being constructed, directly fronting West Confederate Avenue, not far from the compound that had been established in the old CCC camp.

Although the new camp shared the same military identification as the CCC camp, it was, in fact, considered a separate camp with its own command structure, headed up by Captain Clarence K. Randall.  The compound was a tented camp as per the abandoned Emmitsburg camp. It appears that the tented encampment was to be replaced with actual barracks, which were not constructed, as the result of the end of the war with Germany.

By September 8, 1945, four months after Germany’s surrender, both West Confederate Avenue camps housed a combined total of 83 German non-commissioned officers and 799 German enlisted men and covered a combined total of 70 acres.

The Gettysburg compounds experienced a smattering of escape attempts, but all in all, there seemed to be little interest in attempting such an adventure. For one thing, the prisoners were safely out of the war and away from the poorly maintained camps overseas. 

The prisoners were also well-fed, and a little on the spoiled side, as farm families insisted that each soldier fill their pockets, or anything else they might be carrying, with farm goods.

But there were a few attempts to escape for various reasons (attempting to escape an enemy POW camp is not a crime. In fact, under international law, attempting to escape is part of a soldier’s duty.  An escapee cannot be shot while attempting to escape, although some were on both sides. They cannot be tried for attempting to escape, but they can be tried for any other crime that might have occurred during the escape).

On July 3, 1944, Thomas Kostaniak, 27, and Axel Ostermaier, 22, escaped from the Emmitsburg compound through a drainage conduit that ran from the camp and under Emmitsburg Road (the conduit is still there!), thereby having triggered a two-state manhunt that lasted for days.

The duo managed to elude capture for some 30 miles, when, by the time they reached the York area, hunger and fatigue compelled them to surrender to a farm wife, Rachel Bentzel, and her daughter-in-law, Grace Bentzel. The duo was subsequently turned over to the York police, and then the FBI, who returned them to the camp.

As to the motive for the attempted escape… they were trying to get to Atlantic City, having assumed by the name it must be a major seaport in which they could make their way aboard an outgoing ship and head back to Germany.

To illustrate the opposing extreme in escapes, during October 1945, two POWs escaped from a work detail and headed into Gettysburg Borough.  It was reported that apparently the two Germans had no real intent of escape and had merely grown bored at the camp and decided to go off on an adventure. The adventure quickly came to a conclusion when the two POWs were spotted by two off-duty camp guards, and the “escapees” were taken into custody.

As for a motive, it was reported the two wanted to see a movie (Captain Eddie: Story of Rickenbacker was playing at the time) but were refused entry because the theater would not accept their POW vouchers (script).

Prisoners of war would not have had any actual cash placed in their hands for their labors, or the result of any other source of income, their earnings being “banked” by the government and the prisoners being issued script at their encampment canteens.

Following Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945, German POWs remained in the tri-state area. At the beginning of repatriation, Pennsylvania, along with Maryland and Virginia, served as “home” to more than 35,000 German prisoners of war. The War Department began to set into motion their effort to send the one-time enemy combatants housed in the tri-state area home in November 1945.

Before being released, the Germans had to go through “de-Nazification,” which included watching German death camp films and other exposed atrocities. Upon repatriation, each prisoner also received the money the government had “banked” from their labors.

Source: NPS, Gettysburg

Aerial view: The former CCC camp that was coverted to hold German POWs.

Sources: NPS, Gettysburg & Adams County Historical Society

Emmitsburg Road POW camp tents.

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