Thomas and I were parked on the shoulder of a county road watching a group of cheerful and energetic young men working in a field - I think they were gathering and stacking loose hay. There was a large tree in the middle of the field and when they took a break some were throwing boards up into the tree knocking down fruit or nuts, probably pecans. It was 1944 or 1945 and the young men were German prisoners of war.
The story of German prisoners of war in the United States and in South Carolina is fairly well documented on the internet. When American forces landed in North Africa in November 1942 the German Afrika Korps found itself in a vise between the Americans on the West and the British attacking from the East out of Egypt. The Afrika Corps did not receive adequate support from Berlin and surrendered in May 1943. The Allies found themselves with 275,000 German and Italian prisoners. Feeding and housing these prisoners in Africa was a rather large logistics burden at the end of an already overloaded long supply line. It was decided to transport the prisoners back to the U. S. in Liberty Ships that would have been otherwise returning empty. These ships were at great risk of being sunk by German submarines and perhaps the general knowledge that they carried German prisoners gave them safe passage. The value of the work performed by these men on the farms was invaluable because of the obvious shortage of male laborers during the war. Those farm laborers who were not in the armed forces could make much higher wages working in the industrial war effort at the "Navy Yard" in Charleston and elsewhere. The stories of how well the prisoners were treated in the camps and whether they were happy to be prisoners in America rather then in Russia are various and subject to interpretation, and include an account of prisoners at a camp in Aiken "executing" one of their own in apparent punishment for fraternization. The perpetrators were reportedly convicted and hung at Fort Leavenworth.
There are conflicting statistics as to the number of German prisoners of war held in South Carolina but the estimates range from 8000 to 11000. An incomplete list of camps in the U. S. lists only Camp Croft and Camp Jackson in S. C. Although the camps were located in almost every state, they were concentrated in the south because the climate was advantageous to the year round housing requirements. A document from the South Carolina Museums provides the following list.
There were twenty-one camps in the state of South Carolina alone:Aiken, Aiken County--Barnwell, Barnwell County--Bennettsville, Marlboro County--Camden, Kershaw County--Charleston, Charleston County--Charleston Army Air Base, Charleston County--Charleston Port of Embarkation, Charleston County--Columbia Army Air Base, Richland County—Coronaca Army Airfield, Greenwood, Greenwood County—Croft, near Spartanburg, Spartanburg County--Florence Army Air Base, Florence, Florence County, now Florence Regional Airport-- Hampton, Hampton County, --Holly Hill, Orangeburg County--Jackson, Columbia, Richland County--Myrtle Beach Army Air Base, Horry County, now Myrtle Beach Air Force Base—Norway, Orangeburg County—Shaw Field, near Oakland, Sumter County—Walterboro Army Air Base, Walterboro, Colleton County—Whitmire, Newberry County--Witherbee, Berkeley County—York, York County
Missing from this list is the camp at Bamberg which I first heard of recently from someone who grew up in Bamberg and remembers that the camp was on the east side of town south of the railroad. The Bamberg Camp is documented in the 1994 Fritz Hamer paper published on the University of South Carolina Scholar Commons site.
In September 1943, when 250 German POWs were brought to a temporary camp in Bamberg County, the county agricultural extension agent wrote: "... there was almost a steady flow of traffic by the camp. People from miles around came to see what was taking place. (Even after they were banned from the camp area) . . . they never lost interest in the camp and its prisoners of war." Within a few weeks the Bamberg county agent reported that POWs were even "entertained" in local residents' homes! Despite the fact that these were prisoners who had recently fought to kill American troops, if not the sons of the Bamberg families that employed them, the bond between Germans and Americans grew during their weeks of association.
Thomas spoke (and sang) some German resulting from undergraduate studies, voice training and travel. He found a way to visit with some of these prisoners and apparently became friends with several. I recall seeing evidence of correspondence with one or more of the men after the war and I heard that he had shipped "care" packages to Germany after the war. I am sure that our neighbors considered him to be fraternizing with the enemy, and I suppose that was true. The sense of my recollection is that the young men that we observed working in the field near Cope had come from the Norway camp, which would also make geographic sense. But Thomas had strong social and musical ties to the town of Bamberg and so it would seem reasonable that his social interaction with German prisoners of war would have occurred with the Bamberg camp.
I was not able to locate good photos of any of the camps in South Carolina. I did find the following useful photos on the Mississippi HIstorical Society site, courtesy of the Armed Forces Museum, Camp Shelby, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Camp Clnton near Jackson, Mississippi was unique in that many of the high ranking officers were housed there, including 25 generals.
"Prisoners marching through Camp Shelby" at Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
"German prisoners in their various uniforms at Camp Shelby"
The sources say that most of the camps had closed by the spring of 1946 and the last German prisoners left the United States in July 1946, 14 months after the end of the war in Europe was celebrated on May 8, 1945.
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