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Fort Meade converted to POW camp in World War II [History Matters]

Fort Meade housed an internment camp at the start of World War II for primarily German-American and Italian-American citizens and foreign nationals. In 1943, however, the military found itself in a bind with thousands of captured POWs and nowhere to house them in Europe or Africa. The solution was to convert many of the internment camps on U.S. military bases, including Fort Meade, and former Civilian Conservation Corps camps for POWs.

When World War II started, Fort Meade's mission was to train Army ground forces. According to "Maryland in World War II," published by the Maryland Historical Society, Fort Meade trained numerous Infantry Divisions and State Guard groups, as well as Medical Corps; Signal Corps; field, coastal or anti-aircraft artillery; military police; and Women's Army Corps.

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Fort Meade was also assigned a top secret activity once the war began: formation of the Enemy Prisoner of War Bureau.

"The bureau's workers maintained records on all enemy prisoners of war captured by American forces," according to "Maryland in World War II.

"The file was complete from the first Japanese prisoner pulled from the waters of Pearl Harbor early in the morning of December 8, 1941, to the last enemy captured in 1945. All letters and packages addressed to German, Italian and Japanese prisoners of war came to Meade for forwarding, the mail frequently running to a hundred and fifty bags a day."

There was also an interrogation center at the fort. It's unknown how much valuable information it uncovered, but one case had deadly consequences. U-boat prisoner Werner Drechsler collaborated with the intelligence branch at Fort Meade. When he was transferred to Camp Papago Park in Arizona, his fellow German POWs somehow found out and hanged him.

When the decision was made to convert the camps for POWs, internees were shipped out, security at the camp was reinforced, and temporary wood frame buildings were added to handle the increased population. New security regulations issued by post headquarters mandated that "all persons on foot, whether soldiers or civilians, are directed to keep at least 30 paces from the outer fence of the prisoner of war stockade, and to keep moving at all times. Guards have been instructed to fire on any person attempting to converse or otherwise make contact with prisoners."

In September 1943, the first POWs, mostly Italian but also a few dozen German, arrived. As the POWs began to filter in, the administrative burden kicked in. In her book, "Stalag: U.S.A: The Remarkable Story of German POWs in America," author Judith Gansberg wrote, "Their Hitlerite education had taught Germans that Americans were disorganized, undisciplined, and senile — characteristics Germans despised most. The Property Branch of the Enemy Information Bureau at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, did nothing to dispel that image. Medical instruments, watches, pens, eyeglasses, cash, cameras, and untold other items were 'misplaced.' Naturally, the sheer volume of property contributed to the confusion at Fort Meade. But, too often, tags were lost or items added to a G.I.'s 'souvenirs.'"

Like most POW camps across the country, Fort Meade was populated with German soldiers mostly from the Wehrmacht (army). Later studies would reveal that a small percentage of POWs, possibly no more than 10 percent, were Nazi diehards. The military sent the hard core Nazi sympathizers to special camps segregated from the regular POWs.

Even so, in an inspection report by the Red Cross, dated Sept. 6, 1944, the "Anti Nazi Section" of the Meade POW camp is described. This was a section that housed prisoners who "have provided very useful information since capture" and are segregated because "they would be in considerable danger from loyal Nazis." Among this population were some Polish citizens who "said that they accepted service in the German Army as the lesser of two evils and made efforts to be taken prisoner at the earliest possible moment."

POW labor

In 1943, with so many American men off fighting the war, the sentiment to use the POWs as a labor force gained steam. The War Department relented and came up with new regulations for this. In Maryland, Fort Meade remained the main POW camp, but 18 smaller regional camps were set up across the state. Nationwide, 650 camps were constructed for approximately 400,000 German and 50,000 Italian POWs.

The Geneva Convention forbids forced labor by POWs, so participation was voluntary. Many POWs welcomed the opportunity to get out of the camp and keep busy, so participation was high. POWs worked at a variety of jobs, such as agriculture and manufacturing. The POWs from Fort Meade worked all over the area, including Howard, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, as well as Baltimore City.

In Howard County, POWs from the regional camp in Frederick helped with the construction of Brighton Dam. POWs doing agricultural work were dropped off at Hardman's Tourist Home, on Frederick Avenue and St. John's Lane, where the farmers would pick them up. This program was run by County Agent Warren Myers and civilian supervisor John Yingling, the former principal of Ellicott City elementary and high schools.

Meade itself benefitted from the labor pool. In addition to performing tasks like laundry, engineering, mail sorting and repair of base residences, German POWs built three stone bridges on base that are still in use.

The workforce was paid the equivalent of 80 cents a day in scrip that could only be used in the camp store. Employers paid the prevailing wage to the state for the labor, meaning that not only did the program pay for itself, the state of Maryland actually made a profit on the POWs. Employers also benefitted — state officials at the time reported that the POW labor created a 35 percent increase in Maryland's tomato crop in 1945.

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Security challenges

When the POWs first arrived at Fort Meade, they had to be segregated from the hard-core Nazi crew of the S.S. Odenwald, who had been sent to the camp with the internees. The Odenwald crew intimidated and terrorized the internees until they were separated from the rest of the camp. Fort Meade officials were not going to make the same mistake again with German Wehrmacht troops who were mostly content to sit out the war. The ship's crew was transferred to New Mexico shortly after the POWs arrived.

Prisoners of war were issued denim shirts and pants with "PW" stenciled on them. They were allowed to keep their uniforms to wear to church and were escorted to the post chapel to attend Protestant or Roman Catholic services, which must have been a startling sight for Fort Meade families.

The German and Italian troops had to be segregated, since there was no love lost between the Axis partners. This was demonstrated after Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, and one month later declared war on Germany. According to the New York Times, "Italian hatred of the Germans unquestionably grew as the fighting spirit waned, and episodes between German and Italian soldiers and civilians before and after the armistice have shown pretty clearly a complete and incontrovertible end of all sympathy between the former Axis partners."

The Fort Meade Post reported the reaction of Italian POWs on Oct. 15, 1943: "Italian prisoners of war held at this post are ready right now to join in their country's fight against Germany." The Baltimore Sun reported a prisoner shouted "We Allies now, we Allies." In May 1944, the former Italian POWs at Fort Meade were activated in the Army as three Italian Service Companies with quartermaster duties at the fort.

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At the conclusion of the war, the long process of repatriating the POWs began, and Meade's Enemy Prisoner of War Bureau played a major role. According to a Department of Defense report titled "Historic Context: World War II Prisoner-of-War Camps on Department of Defense Installations," some German POWs were dismayed by the U.S. policy of repatriation at the end of the war: "Some Germans liked America and even asked permission to remain in the United States and become citizens. All were denied. It was a firm American policy that all POWs must be repatriated back to the nation in whose army they were captured."

A small section of the post cemetery contains the remains of 33 German and two Italian POWs who died during the war. According to the Anne Arundel County Historical Society, the POWs died from a variety of causes, such as diphtheria, heart disease, meningitis, tuberculosis, skull fractures while working or suicide. But the grave of the only officer buried there doesn't tell his story.

German submarine commander Werner Henke was so highly decorated he received one of his decorations from Hitler himself in 1943. Henke's story is told in Timothy P. Mulligan's book, "Lone Wolf, The Life and Death of U-Boat Ace Werner Henke."

U-Boats under Henke's command sank 22 Allied ships, including the passenger liner Ceramic in November 1944. Allied propaganda about the incident alleged that Henke had the survivors gunned down in their lifeboats, which was not true. The rumors persisted that he was wanted as a war criminal.

His U-Boat was sunk and his crew captured in April 1944. Separated from his crew, Henke was sent to a highly classified interrogation center in Fort Hunt, Va., near Mount Vernon. He spent six weeks at Fort Hunt, and his interrogators used the rumors as leverage. Convinced that he would be hanged as a war criminal, Henke committed suicide by attempting to escape in front of the guards. Ignoring repeated commands to halt, Henke scaled the first barbed-wire fence and was climbing the second when the tower guards opened up on him with their machine guns. He died hanging from the top of the fence.

As Mulligan tells it in his book, "Even in death, Werner Henke remained a thorn in the side of the Allies." His death presented a problem: "even acknowledging the shooting would compromise the center's secrecy."

His body was transferred to Fort Meade for burial in the POW cemetery.

"Thereafter, all official records, including the formal response in November 1944 to German inquiries, testified to Henke's death at Fort Meade. Henke's internment there furthered the deception."

Laurel connection

Laurel resident Mikolaj (Mike) Kogut's war experience proved fascinating and serendipitous. Kogut died in 2008, but his wife, Violette, still lives in their home in West Laurel.

Kogut, born in Ukraine, was captured by the Nazis when he was 15 and sent to a work camp. After being processed, Kogut was waiting in a packed railroad cattle car that was pointing west, toward the Black Forest where he was being sent. Everyone knew that was the direction you wanted to go because trains heading east, to Russia, were filled with people no one would ever see again. As Kogut's train pulled out, he looked at the train pointing east and caught a glimpse of the rest of his family in that cattle car. He never saw them again.

Kogut was put to work on a farm in the Black Forest. The farmer was in the German Army so Kogut never met him. The farmer's wife was very kind to Kogut and he never forgot it.

After the war, Kogut came to the United States and went to work for the Department of Defense, eventually at Fort Meade. Kogut and his wife settled in Laurel in 1971, and both their children are Laurel High School graduates.

On a trip to France, Kogut told Violette he wanted to go see the farm in the Black Forest. They drove to it and met the farmer, who still lived there. His wife had died, but the farmer recognized Kogut's name because his wife talked about him so much over the years. The farmer told Mike and Violette Kogut all about his wartime experiences and revealed that he had spent a few years as a captured POW — at Fort Meade.

Barbara Taylor, from the Fort Meade Museum and Archives, and the Howard County Historical Society provided assistance for this story. History Matters is an occasional column rediscovering Laurel's past. Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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