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Wandering Billy – O.Henry Magazine

Wandering Billy

Ghost of a Place

What life was like for German POWs in Greensboro

 

 

By Billy Eye

I never felt like a free man until I was a prisoner in your country.

— Unknown former German POW

In 1943, Basic Training Center No. 10, later officially designated as the Overseas Replacement Depot (ORD), was established on the north side of Greensboro, where Bessemer and Summit avenues intersect. Situated on 650 acres, ORD’s mission was to train and outfit U.S. Army Air Forces for the European theatre of war. And grafted onto the southeastern corner of the base, located south of Bessemer at the corner of Winston and Sullivan streets, was the gateway into ORD’s German Prisoner of War camp.

The initial influx of POWs (referred to then as PWs) had been captured as combatants serving with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. (Somewhat coincidentally, that’s where my father was stationed during that period.) Housing 400 Krauts (the derogatory nickname wartime Germans were almost universally given) from 1944 until 1946, ORD’s POW camp was one of 18 small “branch camps.” Compare that with much larger installations statewide, housing thousands of internees in Butner, Fort Bragg, Monroe, Southern Pines and Hoffman.

In accordance with the Geneva Convention, POWs were required to be housed and fed in the same manner as American recruits. Germans would treat our detainees reciprocally, or so we hoped. But, as we later discovered, that was not the case.

POWs crossed the ocean to America on Liberty (cargo) ships and arrived in Greensboro by Pullman cars — the height of luxury — where they were waited on by Black porters in transit and enjoyed meals in dining rooms where African-Americans weren’t welcome. In fact, they were treated so well that it created a furor after local airmen of color complained — and rightly so — that our enemies were afforded better accommodations than they were.

Meanwhile, with every able-bodied male recruited for the war effort, the U.S. suffered from a severe manpower shortage. Crops rotted in the fields. Food shortages called for extreme rationing.

And so it was that women were recruited for our manufacturing sector. Think Rosie the Riveter, et al. For obvious reasons, we couldn’t have German nationals building our ships and planes. However, there were crucial jobs related to infrastructure that the captives could perform. Wearing bright blue fatigues with the letters “PW” stenciled on the back, many prisoners spent their days plowing fields and harvesting cotton, tobacco and peanuts, while also performing other duties on and off base. Limited to 8-hour shifts, they earned 80 cents a day.

The enormous milking barn that sat — until recently — behind Friends Homes at Guilford was taken apart by Germans and then rebuilt across Friendly Avenue for the Coble Farm. “When they [POWs] come in from the field,” a 1945 Greensboro Daily News article stated, “they will go to a spigot, take off their shirts, and let the water run all over their bodies.” At first, MPs (Military Police) supervised the work details, but before long the POWs began arriving unaccompanied and would often share meals with the families for whom they were working. Many were even invited for Sunday dinner.

Luis Felicia, who went on to establish a well-known dance studio in Greensboro, was stationed on the base from 1943–45. In an interview with a UNCG history project, he recalled supervising Germans servicing the Officer’s Club, said to be one of the most elegant clubs in the nation. “Some of them were just kids,” Felicia said. “They were real young, you know, and they’d come, and they’d send me eight of them, and every week I’d get a different batch. They were there to clean and, you know, do the chores around the club.”

Besides minor problems communicating, there were few snags. Quite the opposite, actually. “They were real happy,” Felicia commented. “I think they were happy to be prisoners because they had a lot of good food to eat.” One day while emptying the garbage cans out, one of them told him, “My goodness. Hitler would feed the whole army with what you just threw away.”

According to ORD News in August of 1944, Germans bivouacked in the Gate City grew “sick and tired” of the war. Just a couple of months earlier, those same POWs were certain the Wehrmacht armed forces would prevail. Now, with 4,000 allied bombers dropping their payloads over Berlin every day, they began questioning the Nazi propaganda they’d been force-fed back home.

A year after Victory in Europe Day, all Axis combatants were forcibly deported back to their hometowns. If given a choice, a great number would undoubtedly have stayed. After all, they had it a lot better in the U.S. than they did in their own war-ravaged nation, a large portion of which was occupied by Russians who were not at all sympathetic to their plight.

Many Germans who were quartered in Greensboro wrote letters back to the American families they grew to know while working for them, often receiving “care packages” in return. In those missives, some former combatants remarked that, ironically, they never understood the concept of freedom until they were imprisoned here.

If you want to tour what’s left of that enemy internment facility, travel down Winston Street from Sullivan Street. To the right were eight Prisoner of War barracks with four latrine and shower units in the rear. One of the barracks still exists at 727 Winston Street (but with a more modern brick facade). Next door, what was formerly Mess Hall No. 11 (reserved for German POWs) has been repurposed as a heating and air business. An outbuilding can still be spotted at the rear of 721 Winston.

An unfenced guard field would have been located to the left, where an administration office at 704 Winston resolutely sits up on cinderblocks just as almost every other temporary building in ORD did. The fencing in front of that dilapidated structure is precisely where the barbed wire line was in 1944.

At that time, Winston Street (then South 13th Street) ended at the edge of camp. Now it curves to the east, leading to Utility Street and offering a look at the camp’s other concertina-wired zone reserved for recreation and education, which included English lessons. It appears that four of the five original buildings still exist. R.E. Michel Company at 2100 Sullivan Street operates out of two refurbished rec halls that were built for POWs at the eastern edge of the camp.

So . . . 425,000 Germans incarcerated around the country, including about 10,000 in North Carolina, helped America win World War II? Nazi that coming!  OH

Billy Eye would love to write the definitive book on ORD if ever there is funding for such a project.

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