Like many a family secret, knowledge of Henderson County’s POW population during WWII isn’t all that secret. Ask Jennie Jones Giles, a local history expert, college instructor, and former newspaper reporter.
“I’ve known about it all my life,” Giles says of the WWII POW camps in the county. “All the local people know about them. I don’t have memories of them, but all my family does — my aunts, uncles, mom and dad.”
Giles teaches a local-history course at Blue Ridge Community College, and part of the curriculum covers the two small camps of war prisoners who spent time in the region during WWII. She dug up primary source material about them when she was an award-winning reporter for the Hendersonville Times-News. Now retired, she curates a website of her research called HendersonHeritage.com.
“In the spring of 1944 the federal government created a nationwide POW program to assist the civilian war-related industries of farming, lumbering, and pulpwood cutting,” she posts on the website. “North Carolina’s first German POW work contingents were mostly prisoners from Field Marshal Rommel’s Afrika Korps, captured in Tunisia in May 1943. They arrived in the spring of 1944. The POW program expanded after the Allied invasion of Normandy.”
The POWs in Henderson County were typically used as farm workers and field hands. As much as the government wanted the program hush-hush, fearing public outcry, its existence was common knowledge to locals.
That’s because able-bodied men had gone to war, causing farms to suffer a shortage of workers. And POWs were used to fill the void. Giles says her uncle would accompany her grandfather to pick them up for their shifts in the fields.
Giles says no one has been able to pin down how many POWs actually called the southern-mountain region their temporary home. Probably a few hundred, but that’s an educated guess. “We don’t know how many were there.”
“There” refers to the two local camps, satellites for larger holding places at Camp Butner in North Carolina and Camp Forrest in Tennessee. One local camp became the home of East Henderson High School in Flat Rock. The second has become a residential development in the Rugby community near Mills River. Historical markers? Improbable, but not because of local animosity. Those still living who remember the groups of men say the POWs enjoyed a good, albeit under the radar, relationship with area residents, Giles discovered.
“The local people got along with them very well,” she says, adding that those with first-hand knowledge are becoming rarer and rarer. She wasn’t born when the POWs lived in the vicinity, and many of the local farmers and growers who would have knowledge of them are deceased.
However, Barbara Garrison, Giles’ aunt, was 13 when the POWs began working at the family farm in East Flat Rock. She worked the same fields as the men.
“It was just farm work. They worked in the field, plowing and growing peppers and lima beans,” Garrison, 83, says. “They were just good workers.”
Garrison remembers the men being generally good-natured, the three or four who worked during the summer on her dad’s 33-acre farm. “They were just young men. They didn’t look any different than anyone else. They just didn’t speak English.”
And no one else on the farm spoke German. Anything the POWs did, her dad had to demonstrate first. “They just showed them what to do.”
She even has recollections of the barracks they stayed in, and that one was named Hans. “They were treated with dignity,” she recalls. “I have no idea how they felt about it.”
For history buffs, this story is full of interesting angles. When Giles dug into the newspaper archives, she found passages like this: “A Mills River bean grower was reported to have used some of the prisoners and to have been pleased with their work. Another Mills River farmer later recalled that he had transported a group of prisoners along with three guards to bean fields in North Mills River in an open-bed Dodge truck.” Apparently, in groups of ten or less, the men were hauled around the county — something a government program just can’t throw a tarp over.
Interacting with the enemy in small, close batches doubtlessly humanized the German soldiers in the eyes of local residents. It was part of a complicated lesson for students at East Henderson High, who, during a related history project last fall steered by Giles and three of the school’s teachers, wondered why relations between local farmers and the POW workers were so often amicable.
Students learned that local orchard owner Bobby Creasman, of Creasman Farms, grew up listening to stories about the POWs from his father, Clarence, who befriended one of them: young pilot-turned-pharmacist Gunter Furich. The two kept in touch even after the war.
But overall, the POW program was kept relatively secret. When Giles and East Henderson High history teacher Todd Singer went searching for archival photos from Henderson County to augment the lesson, they came up dry.
“There just isn’t anything,” says Giles.
Even today, according to Dr. Robert Billinger, “many people today are unaware of the POWs that were held all across North Carolina,” although he guesses “there were more than 10,000” of them in the state.
Billinger is an emeritus professor of European history at Wingate University in Matthews, NC. As a German and Austrian specialist, he traveled extensively in those countries, encountering former POWs “initially by accident,” he says.
Back home, he wrote a book exclusively about the prisoner program in North Carolina titled Nazi POWs in the Tar Heel State, published by the University Press of Florida in 2008. He says the smaller camps of POWs, such as the two in Henderson County, were hiding in plain sight. People knew about the camps but not the particulars. Too many other wartime and daily-life issues preoccupied the minds of Americans.
“The average person didn’t own a radio, let alone a TV. Most didn’t subscribe to a paper,” he points out. “The other interesting thing about the POWs in small groups, like five or ten or something, if they were helping you bring in the crops, and you looked at them, they’d be young guys from 17 to 22. They looked very much like the guys you played basketball with in high school.”
Of the 400,000 POWs in the United States, most were housed on larger military compounds, like Fort Bragg, away from the curious eyes of the public. The smaller local camps didn’t require the same high security, in part because prisoners were generally treated better there.
“Basically, they’d throw barbed-wire up and provide a small number of guards,” Billinger says. “Farmers could approach the camp commanders to hire four to ten men for six to ten weeks. They had to agree to pay the same as civilian laborers. The government would truck them to the location and provide guards at the location and truck them back at night. The farmers would pay the government, and the government would in turn would give the prisoners the equivalent of 80 cents a day to use as PX coupons at the camp.”
Knox Crowell, director of the Henderson County Heritage Museum, says his grandfather used POWs to farm his apple orchard in Laurel Park. One of the men who worked for his grandfather was a tailor. “He took a wool blanket and tailored a nice winter coat for him,” Crowell recalls. “There was more to the war than just war.”
Also, it would be a misrepresentation to state that all the POWs were Nazis, says Billinger. The German army consisted of recruits, some unwilling, from many nations. Not all of them held allegiances to the Nazi Party. It was difficult for U.S. officials to distinguish which POWs adhered to the tenets of Nazism, though they tried to segregate those they did find, according to Billinger.
“‘Nazi’ was used as a blanket term” by the media, he says. “The fact is that the press then, as now, sold more papers with generalities.”
But near the end of the war, when reports out of Europe showed much worse conditions for American POWs, unofficial pressure was placed on the U.S. camps to stop the perceived “coddling” of German prisoners, he says. POWs began to be worked longer and fed less, so much so that some farmers complained they weren’t getting what they paid for.
Within months, however, the war was over. The drawn-out process of repatriation began, with some of the German POWs going directly home and others sent to Britain, France, and Belgium for their first postwar year.
The long-term impact of the POW program is hard to quantify, although manpower hours were calculated. In November 1945, the state director of the War Manpower Commission reported that the POWs in North Carolina had performed nearly two million “man-days” of labor over the course of about a year or so at 18 camps.
But perhaps the impact was more personal, as Barbara Garrison adds — an opinion both she and her husband share about that time 70 years ago. “They were just German kids who got pushed into the war.”
Veterans Hall is located outside the Veterans Services Office at the Health and Human Services building, 1200 Spartanburg Hwy., Hendersonville.
Visit Jennie Jones Giles’ website on Henderson County history is at hendersonheritage.com.
Dr. Robert Billinger’s webpage on the Wingate University website is at www.wingate.edu/academics/robert-d-billinger-jr.
I’m late to this tale, but I have fond recollections of my father’s stories of having these men on the family farm near Mills River. Might as well add it to your story:
My Daddy said they arrived off a flat bed truck at the family farm, and it was the first farm the soldiers were sent to work. They were skinny and scared looking. But they worked hard. Their sergeant was a real task master. At noon time, my grandmother set a huge table, full of biscuits, fried chicken, potatoes, her homegrown tomatoes from the canning jars, heated up, etc. These soldiers seemed surprised they were sitting down at the table with the family. My grandfather knew they were Rommel’s troops and he was impressed. And indeed, my father said you’d never seen a more aryan bunch of boys–he said there wasn’t a non-blonde among them. They also were originally afraid to eat the food my grandmother put out for them, so the head sergeant ate some and smiled, and they dug in. When they started eating they couldn’t stop. They ate and ate and smiled and thanked my grandmother. They worked on the farm the whole week.
Come the weekend, at the end of Saturday’s work, some local farmers thought it would be a good idea to let these men go downtown to see a movie. My father said one of his strangest memories is seeing the German soldiers sitting in the middle of the theater, and looking up to the balcony where the black residents were required to sit. He saw one of the women who helped cook at their farm, a woman named Mariah who’d helped raise him and his sisters. Her sons were enlisting in the service, too, he recalled. So my father waved at her. My father’s hand was slapped by his uncle, who said not to wave. It would embarrass the family in front of the Germans, the uncle warned.
Many many years in the 1970s when I was a kid, my father told me that story, and my first reaction was how unfair it had been, that here we were as a nation, at war with the enemy, and the enemy was being treated better than the black residents who lived and worked here, whose roots were deeply American.
My father said, I suppose you’re right. He had honestly, never thought of that. Never occurred to him.
We really do need to know our history, especially from a modern vantage point.
Amazing, isn’t it?