Residents share their memories of Augusta-area pow camps
My longtime friend, Joseph Moore Lee III, and I observed our pre-teenage years on Heath Street of Augusta’s Hill Section between Central Avenue and Wrightsboro Road. Those years date from 1940, when my family moved from Atlanta to Augusta, through the 1950s. Joe was already there, having been born in the city. Each of us had entered the world in 1935.
Even then, Joe was a budding historian who was to bloom into the real thing in adulthood, while I was a collector of everything under the sun. Both of us lived within a bicycle ride of Daniel Field, and after World War II broke out in 1941, the place became a magnet for us neighborhood kids when the U.S. Army Air Corps took over the base.
“I started going to the airport just to see the planes,” Joe said. The pre-jet flying machine era included fighter planes like the P-38 Lightning, the P-41, the P-47 and the Bell Airacobra. Bombers included the B-25, B-26 and (later) the B-17 Flying Fortress.
After American armed forces and their Allies began their winning ways, a big problem emerged: what to do with German, Austrian and Italian troops captured in North Africa and elsewhere. There was no interest in setting up prisoner-of-war camps overseas because of the large numbers of personnel that would be required to take care of them.
So, as early as 1942, the U.S. War Department ordered the transfer of all enemy prisoners to confinement in America, according to a booklet, World War II Prisoners of War in Georgia: Camp Gordon’s POWs.
The United States and Great Britain had reached an agreement whereby all prisoners taken in northwest Africa would be shipped to America, with less than 5,000 reportedly in the U.S. by early 1943. By May of that year, numbers rose to more than 240,000 German, Austrian and Italian prisoners, Before the war ended in 1945, the number had reached more than 425,000, mostly Germans, according to news accounts of the time.
Among several POW camps in Georgia, Camp Gordon was a pleasant surprise to the first prisoners, who had expected the worst. They arrived in October 1943 and found standard living conditions, including barracks, a latrine with showers and laundry tubs, an administration building, a recreation building, an infirmary, workshop, canteen, chapel, station hospital and a large outdoor recreation area, all constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“We were introduced to a life that was incomparably better than that we had known as German soldiers,” said one prisoner.
When the prisoner population at Camp Gordon fell in 1945, some 300 of the remaining prisoners were relocated to an area across from Daniel Field along Highland Avenue to Ada Ramp Walden Drive. Facilities were spartan compared to those at the Gordon camp because some U.S. congressmen had heard how German authorities had treated Allied prisoners inhumanely and called a halt to the literal “beds of roses” given “our” enemy prisoners.
In his book “From Balloons to Blue Angels, the Story of Aviation in Augusta, Georgia,” the late historian Dr. Edward Cashin had noted that “200 other prisoners worked in the Augusta Arsenal. Prisoners did odd jobs in the neighborhood and were sometimes taken on walks by guards for exercise. One of our neighbors answered her door bell to find a prisoner who had gotten lost. She gave him a cup of tea while they waited for military police. Another Hill resident became annoyed when she found a prisoner in her garden, She chased him back to his work gang with a pistol. Authorities later gave her permission to fire warning shots if she found another prisoner wandering in her yard.”
Joe Lee’s recollection of German prisoners of war “is not real specific except for the guard’s Jeep. I remember seeing them on many of the occasions when I rode my bike to Daniel Field, my primary purpose was to see the military planes,” he recalled. He was 10 at the time.
“The POWs would hang out at the borrow pit (now occupied by the Dairy Queen) on Central Avenue across the street from the airport hangars. I do have memories of sitting with the guard in the Jeep. The prisoners would come over to the Jeep and talk to me. I remember hearing German spoken. I did not know what they were saying. I remember one pointing to the gearshift or steering wheel. Maybe they were asking me to crank it up and help them get away!
“I remember they were always smiling and laughing. If any of them spoke English, I do not remember. They just seemed to enjoy having an American kid hanging out with them.”
The Baab family (my mother, Helen E. Baab and father William H. (Bill) Baab Sr., and siblings Betty, Barbara Jean, Charles and Jimmy) was used to driving out on Sunday afternoons and on one trip down Highland Avenue, I vaguely remember groups of prisoners watching us from behind the chainlink fence topped with strands of barbed wire. Some waved and us kids waved back. There were towers manned by guards armed with machine guns at each corner of the camp.
Some of the German POWs in the Daniel Field camp were die-hard members of the Nazi Party and were in the habit of taking names of fellow prisoners who displeased them or refused to take orders. The Nazis’ plans were to discipline the errant ones once they returned to Germany. Bet they were surprised by changed conditions when they arrived back home. Some Nazis were segregated from non-party members at other camps across the country.
With most of America’s labor forces overseas during the war, someone got the bright idea of using POWs in their places. Stories in The Augusta Chronicle documented the sorely needed services performed by the prisoners who were hired out to farmers on both sides of the Savannah River for eight to 10 hours a day. They earned 80 cents a day in credits. On one farm near Monetta in Aiken County, S.C., the prisoners helped pick cotton, corn and peaches and helped gather hay.
Miriam Drew Hancock, 84, of Jackson, S.C., has retained in her mind’s eye a harrowing experience when she was just 10 years old in 1945. Her father, William Bruce Hancock, was owner of a large farm in parts of Burke and Jefferson counties. Typical crops were cotton, corn, peanuts, soybeans, rye and wheat.
One day, she related, he told his daughter that German prisoners of war were coming from the Waynesboro, Ga., camp to work on his farm. He ordered her to stay away from them.
“I remember two busloads of prisoners coming to the farm and all but two started stacking mounds of peanuts,” she said. “Their guards were soldiers carrying rifles. The two others may have been ill or injured. My father was a kindly man and a gentleman and would not allow anyone who was ill or hurt to work. So, they chained those two to a large oak tree across the road because there were not enough guards to take care of them. The chains were long enough so they could walk around.
“I was across the road and was able to speak to them and told them I was sorry for their predicament. One of the prisoners spoke broken English. He told me, ‘Daddy good!’ It was the only time I spoke to them. I can still see the scene in my mind’s eye as if it took place yesterday,” she said nearly 75 years later. “I wish it would go away.”
The Waynesboro camp was completed in early June 1944 and was located on what was locally known as “Chance’s Race Track under a grove of hickory-nut trees,” said a short story in the weekly newspaper, The True Citizen, of June 15, 1944. Horse racing was held there during the pre-war years.
The only other POW-related stories published in the newspaper concerned plans to discuss how much money would be paid to the prisoners who worked on private farms, picking and stacking peanuts and other crops. There also was an appeal for books for the camp guards.
Meanwhile, Richmond County farmers who were unable to obtain civilian workers for general farm work were able to get prisoners by applying to the county Agricultural Extension Service office. Farmers in Greenwood and Laurens counties also used prisoner labor. At least one group helped stack brick at Augusta’s Georgia-Carolina Brick & Tile Company.
Attitudes of prisoners hired for such work were mainly positive because the forced monotony of imprisonment was broken in a good way. Many became friends with their employers and maintained contacts long after the war.
Louisville, Ga. native Curt Wilcher remembers his father hiring Italian POWs from Camp Gordon to work on the family farm sacking peanuts. A Jefferson County employee joined the guards in overseeing the prisoners’ work. The employee’s wife was only 16 or 17 and comely in appearance. One day, she brought her husband his lunch and one of the prisoners whistled at her. Her husband was not amused and belted the offender with a pitchfork, Wilcher recalled.
The war had ended many months before for 21 Germans and one Italian who died of illnesses at Camp Gordon, or at camps in Wadley, Ga., and Waynesboro and elsewhere.
Wynder Smith, 83 when this story was being written, recalled the Wadley camp was located on a lot between West Artesian and Perkins streets next to an American Legion Hut. “I think they used the kitchen in the Legion building to prepare meals for the prisoners, all of whom were Germans.”
He said prisoners were used to harvest peanuts on the farm of his father, W.P. Smith. “I can remember seeing them arrive in school buses guarded by soldiers armed with shotguns,” he said.
Julia Gaston, 86, also remembered the camp and said she and other girls were told to “stay away from that part of town.” But she remembered seeing some of the prisoners “and all of them were blond.”
Meanwhile, in Aiken, S.C., the J.A. Goldman Dairy hired German prisoners of war from a camp on the Shiloh Road. “They cut our corn and never gave us any trouble,” said Elizabeth “Lib” Goldman, 92, during a 2009 interview.
During the war, another German POW camp was located in Aiken on Teague Street and Highway 19 near the Mattie C. Hall Nursing Home. “Many of those prisoners worked at the D.M. George Dairy, and my grandmother spoke German and was able to talk to some of them,” recalled Johanna Gibbs during a 2010 interview.
Germany agreed to an unconditional surrender in early 1945, and if there were any emotions expressed by Augusta’s POWs, they were not obvious to a reporter who visited the camp.
“The impression gathered by this observer was that the Germans were quietly elated to hear the war had ended, but any comments they had to make was done out of hearing of persons who worked with them,” he said.
Suggested reading: World War II Prisoners of War in Georgia: Camp Gordon’s POWs, by Kathy Roe Coker, Ph.D, 1994. From Balloons to Blue Angels, the Story of Aviation in Augusta, Georgia, by Dr. Edward J. Cashin, Center for the Study of Georgia History, Augusta State University, 2003.
A platoon of U.S. soldiers fires a salute in honor of a German prisoner of war who died from injuries suffered in an accident. Some of his comrades (left) salute in the American manner and were joined by American officers and enlisted men at the ceremony on Nov. 2, 1943. (Used by permission of The Associated Press)
Appears in the November/December 2019 issue of Augusta Magazine.