Though no battles were ever fought in Gettysburg during World War II, German soldiers were sent to the county and other locations around the country. It wasn’t to fight, though. The soldiers were sent here as prisoners of war.
On May 31, 1944, 50 prisoners of war were transferred from Camp Meade in Maryland to Gettysburg. The U. S. War Department set up hundreds of POW camps throughout the country during the war. Similar camps could also be found nearby in Frederick, Md., and Pine Grove Furnace Park.
However, when the prisoners arrived in Gettysburg, there was no camp in which to house them. The POWs were set to work building a 400-foot by 600-foot stockade surrounding the camp along Emmitsburg Road next to the old Home Sweet Home Motel. During this construction phase, the prisoners were housed at the National Guard Armory on Confederate Avenue.
Three days after the first arrival of prisoners, another 100 joined them and then an additional 350 came a week later.
The tent camp was ready for occupancy on June 20, 1944. The POWs moved into the new camp and 425 of them began working at local farms helping with the pea harvest.
Pea farmers weren’t the only ones who could get prison laborers. All a farmer had to do was apply to the employment service in Gettysburg.
“Use of German prisoners of war in Adams county’s canneries and orchards during the last two years allowed the production of thousands of dollars worth of food that otherwise would not have been processed, E. A. Crouse, head of the local USES office, said today in releasing figures on the amount of work performed by the POWS,” the Gettysburg Times reported in 1946.
Prison labor wasn’t used to replace the existing labor force in the county but to supplement it. Civilians were always given first preference at the work, but there wasn’t always enough interest in filling the jobs. Crouse noted in one instance that 5,000 letters had been mailed asking for workers to help cut pulpwood. Only 15 replies were received.
Even with a need for the workers, the Gettysburg Times noted, “Some canners and others refused to have anything to do with the former enemy troops and some employe(e)e who would have had to work beside the Germans refused to do so.”
However, need outweighed distaste and POWs worked alongside civilians. This helped break down some of the prejudice against the prisoners as the civilians realized things they had in common rather than the differences between them.
For their efforts, the prisoners received 80 cents a day. The remaining amount of their daily earnings, which was usually between 50 and 60 cents an hour, was sent to the federal government. According to the National Park Service, the federal government received $138,000 from the Gettysburg POW camp from June 8 through November 1, 1944. On days that a prisoner didn’t work, he received 10 cents a day. The prisoners were paid in coupons, which they could use as cash in the camp exchange.
Besides peas, the prisoners helped with cherry and apple harvests. The Gettysburg POWs were sent with a guard detail to work in canneries, lumber mills and farms in Littlestown, Biglerville, Hanover, Chambersburg, Middletown and Emmitsburg.
As the harvests ended and winter approached, temperatures began to fall. Many of the prisoners were moved to Camp Sharpe (the former Camp Colt). After Camp Colt had closed at the end of World War I, the barracks had been used to house Civilian Conservation Corps workers during the Great Depression era. They had been refurbished and put back into military use as Camp Sharpe.
Though the prisoners were generally docile, there were some problems. One prisoner hanged himself in an Aspers cannery. Two other prisoners escaped but were recaptured eight days later. The prisoners even tried to unsuccessfully strike a couple times.
The camp commander was Capt. Laurence Thomas, a former school superintendent. He also managed the camp at Pine Grove Furnace State Park. He was a good choice because he could speak German and was able to communicate with the prisoners and diffuse a lot of issues before they became problems.
Many times, this simply involved separating the hardcore Nazi and SS soldiers from the common soldiers. Most of the soldiers simply wanted to get through the war and realized that the conditions in the American camps, which followed the Geneva Convention, were not harsh.
Camp Sharpe closed in February 1945, though a skeleton crew of soldiers remained for another year to close down the camp. At its peak in July 1944, the Gettysburg POW camp held 932 prisoners of war, some of whom returned after the war to visit Gettysburg as guests.