Prisoner of War Camps at Gettysburg During World War II

German Enemy Prisoners of War Camp and a US Civil War Battlefield Site

German EPWs in the United States during World War II
German EPWs in the United States during World War II

Armed Forces Museum at Camp Shelby

The United States War Department was granted permission by the National Park Service to locate a prisoner of war camp on the battlefield west of the High Water Mark, immediately south of the Home Sweet Home Motel on the Emmitsburg Road in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On May 31, 1944, fifty war prisoners from Camp George G. Meade, Maryland, under guard of U. S. Army troops led by Captain L. C. Thomas, began placing poles for the stockade to surround the camp. The fifty German prisoners were housed temporarily in the National Guard Armory on Confederate Avenue. They were joined by an additional one hundred prisoners within three day of the initial arrivals; with another three hundred fifty prisoners arriving one week later. (There were eventually close to five hundred German prisoners of war and approximately ninety guards located at the tent camp on the edge of the borough.) The camp was ready for occupancy by June 20, 1944, and a contingency of four hundred twenty-five prisoners began working in the pea harvest on that date.

Any farmer, fruit grower or packing plant company in need of help made application to the local employment service in Gettysburg. Mr. E. A. Crouse was the chairman of the service at that time. It was his responsibility to coordinate the contracts with the local farmers and industries with the military. The original group of prisoners were assigned to fourteen canneries, both fruit and vegetable; three orchards, seventeen farms, one stone quarry and one fertilizer and hide plant. Prisoners were transported and guarded by military police, to the various locations in Littlestown, Biglerville, Hanover, Chambersburg, Middletown and Emmitsburg. The prevailing wages paid by the employers were $1.00 per hour with ten cents per hour credited to the prisoners' accounts. (The United States Government cleared $138,000 on this one camp from June 8 through November 1, 1944.) The prisoners were not paid in cash, but were given coupons which they could spend in the camp post exchange.

After the vegetable season, the prisoners were employed to pick cherries. The government had contracted all of the Pennsylvania orchards and although cherries were gathered by the ton, none was available to civilians as all of the crops were used for the military services. The prisoners ate as they picked and naturally liked this work much better than picking peas or beans.

In the Fall of 1944, Pennsylvania had a bountiful apple crop. The prisoners and the guards would come form the orchards with pockets full of apples. By the time the apple harvest ended, there were prisoner of war work camps all along the eastern seaboard. Eventually as the harvest season ended, the number of prisoners in the tent camp had diminished to two hundred. These men were moved to Camp Sharp, just off Confederate Avenue, on November 15, 1944. The camp on the Emmitsburg Road was strictly a tent camp, so it was necessary to move to warmer quarters with the approaching cold weather. The prisoners were cutting pulp wood and helping to clear underbrush.

Camp Sharp dated to World War I and was notable as the location of General Dwight Eisenhower's assignment with a tank corps during the First World War. The barracks were used during the nineteen thirties to house Conservation Corps members and eventually was used to house German prisoners of war. (Little evidence of the camp remains on the site at the present time, but it is used as a tenting area to house and stable participants in re-enactment held on the battlefield.)

There were some serious problems inherent to this type of military establishment. One prisoner hanged himself while the group was working at the Adams Apple Products Corporation in Aspers. Whether the suicide was a result of harassment by the other prisoners or homesickness or fear of the future, no one knew. Two prisoners escaped from the tent camp and evaded capture for eight days, but they traveled only thirty miles during that time because they were not sure where they were nor where they were going. Once or twice the prisoners attempted to "strike," but their problems were very quickly resolved, aided in part by the fact that Captain Thomas could speak and understand German. This ability also proved to be helpful in identifying the SS prisoners who tried to intimidate the other men. (These "hardcore" soldiers were separated from the camp as quickly as possible in order to protect the conscripts who had surrendered as soon as they had the opportunity.) The prisoners were all treated fairly under the terms of the Geneva Convention - most of the prisoners were very familiar with the terms of the convention and were prompt in calling the guards' attention to any deviations from the rules.

The local citizens provided opportunities for the U. S. Army soldiers who were assigned at the camp. (The guard detail was not one of the most exciting assignments for these soldiers. Dean W. E. Tilberg was the chairman of the local USO for Adams County. When the camp was moved to Camp Sharp, the USO offered recreational facilities - ping pong tables, pool tables, reading materials, movies. The USO and the American Red Cross were very generous in providing equipment, supplies, and entertainment for the guards. Camp Sharp was closed in January, 1945, when the demand for labor has diminished.

Early in 1945, another former Civilian Conservation Corps Camp, located in the Micheaux State Park between Chambersburg and Carlisle, was enclosed in a stockade and newly captured German prisoners of war were transported to the camp. All of the prisoners were brought to the camp after dark on blacked-out trains to maintain the secrecy of the camp's location. The purpose of the camp at Pine Grove Furnace was to obtain information from the prisoners concerning troop movements. gun placements, submarine pen locations. Other than the army personnel and the military intelligence personnel, no outsiders were allowed in the area. Approximately 25,000 prisoners passed through the camp. As certain officers and scientists were identified, they were immediately isolated and sent to special barracks for further questioning. Some of the scientists were sent to Whit Sands, New Mexico, to work on the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Some of these men ultimately became American citizens.

After the war ended in Europe, the German prisoners who were in the camp were returned to New York City and were eventually returned to Germany. A lesser known fact is that the camp at Pine Grove Furnace was then used to house Japanese prisoners of war. On June 15, 1945, approximately two hundred Japanese were assigned to the camp. Very few of these prisoners ever became ( ) with the army personnel. They were hard workers and assigned to any job to keep busy. They beautified the camp - painting the lanes for the paths; cutting the grass by hand; planting flowers in the compound. The Japanese were all very eager to go home, even though they could be disgraced for having surrendered. These prisoners were also interrogated and then processed to other camps, but there were significantly fewer Japanese who passed through the camp. At the end of the war in the Pacific, the remaining prisoners were sent to Seattle, Washington, to await transportation to Japan. They were all amazed to see Major Thomas there to accompany them. There were approximately 1600 Japanese on the Sea Devil for the eighteen day trip to Japan. Major Thomas was appalled to see these men loaded onto barges and then simply set ashore when they did reach land - they just climbed the banks and disappeared.

The oil paintings of Pine Grove Furnace were done by a professional artist. He, accompanied by a guard, climbed a mountain overlooking the camp and sketched the view; then upon returning to the camp proceeded to paint the picture on masonite. The other picture is the office of Major Thomas. It might be of interest to know that the only remaining evidence of the camp is the chimney seen in the picture. All of the pictures, newspaper ( ) and drawings have been donated to the Adams County historical Society in memory of Major Laurence C. Thomas, commander of the camps at Gettysburg and Pine Grove Furnace, by his daughters, Mrs. James C. Wilson of Winston-Salem, North Carolina and A. Joan Thomas of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.