Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

IMAGES OF OUR PAST - GERMAN AND ITALIAN POWs in DUBLIN, GEORGIA, 1943

As the United States became more involved in World War II, more farm products were needed in support of the war effort. The problem was that many of the farmers were no longer fighting the weather but fighting in Europe and the Pacific. Those at home aided the war effort by stepping up agricultural production. In 1943, State Senator Herschel Lovett, County Agent Harry Edge, and Emergency Farm Labor Assistant Walter B. Daniel contacted Congressman Carl Vinson of Milledgeville to request the location of a temporary prisoner of war camp in Dublin. 

Laurens County needed help in gathering the crops that would be ready for harvest in the summer through early fall. The gentlemen requested that a camp be set up at the County Farm on Highway 441 just above the present Interstate highway. Vinson contacted Col. I.B. Summers of the Prisoner of War Division of the Federal government. Col. Summers advised Vinson that the location of camp would not be easy because of the lack of trained prison guards. Vinson, undaunted, contacted Col. R.E. Patterson of the prison camp at Camp Wheeler, near Macon. Col. Patterson echoed the doubts about a camp for Dublin.

Under the guidelines of the Geneva Convention of 1929, prisoners of war must be paid eighty cents per day for labor outside of the prison camp. Prison labor was limited by the number of guards, not the number of prisoners. The Farm Labor Advisory Committee, consisting of Bob Hodges, Wade Dominy, C.L. Thigpen, R.T. Gilder, H.W. Dozier, Frank Clark, D.W. Alligood, and A.O. Hadden continued to press Vinson to acquire the camp to help in the harvest. Finally, Vinson succeeded and the army allowed some prisoners to be sent from Camp Wheeler.

The first couple of hundred prisoners arrived on August 26, 1943, under the supervision of Capt. Henry J. Bordeaux. The first prisoners were Italians. The camp was not located on the county farm but on the site of the old 12th District Fairgrounds where the New York Yankees, Boston Braves, and St. Louis Cardinals had played and where the cowboy hero Tom Mix had thrilled thousands with his traveling circus. The fairgrounds played host to thrilling feats of athletic skill by Olympic champion Jesse Owens in 1940, along with a barnstorming game with two Negro league teams. The fairgrounds were bounded on the north by the railroad east by Troup Street, south by Telfair Street and West by Joiner Street. The prisoners arrived just in time to help with the peanut harvesting in Laurens and surrounding counties. The camp was completed in three days under the Army Corps of Engineers and the Quartermaster Corps. After the camp was set up, the prisoners were immediately taken to the fields. The men were used to chop cotton and stack peanuts.

The recently completed naval airfield near Dublin soon began handling the first direct air mail into Dublin. The guards were getting letters from Fort Benning flown into Dublin every other day. The civic and church groups made the guards feel at home with parties, home cooking, and entertainment at the service center in the Henry Building at 101 West Jackson Street. It was not long before the soldiers could return the favor. A young woman was lying in the hospital in desperate need of a blood transfusion. No local donors with a matching type could be found. Her friends called the camp commander, Col. S.L. Irwin for help. Several volunteers arrived at the hospital within ten minutes. The soldiers came back for a second transfusion. The patient recovered. Nearly every one of the 250 guards stationed at the prison camp responded to the call of Lehman P. Keen, chairman of the 3rd War Bond Drive. The German prisoners adapted well to the South and were even heard singing "Dixie" after a hard day's work on the farm.

By October, the need for farm labor had significantly declined. The Army planned to move the camp by mid- October. The Fourth Service Command granted permission for the camp to remain open into November. One half of the five hundred prisoners were moved in the third week of October along with their guards under the leadership of Capt. Jennings. New guards were brought in to replace those who left. Shortly, the camp would close down for the winter.

Just as the allied forces began the invasion of Europe in June of 1944, the German prisoners returned to Dublin. It would be a long hot summer for the German prisoners in Dublin. One prisoner was killed by a falling tree on Snellgrove plantation. The prisoner was working with the pulpwood crew of Robert Cullens. On July the Fourth, three prisoners, Josef Damer, Jeorge Fries, and Willi Pape escaped while on a work detail at the Warner Callan Farm near Scott. They were captured the following day. Some people say that the prisoners just got lost in the woods and were not attempting to escape. The commandant of the camp instituted harsh disciplinary procedures as a result of the escape. The prisoners countered by staging a sit down strike - refusing to work on the farms. Within a few days, calmer heads prevailed. The matter was settled. By the end of the summer, the situation had eased, and the Army guards had enough free time to play baseball, basketball, and football games against the U.S. Navy at the new naval hospital.

Many of the local people bore no hatred to the prisoners. Nearly every Sunday morning the prisoners would march from the camp down Academy Avenue and turn north on Church Street for mass at the Catholic Church. Along the way the Germans sang hymns. The prisoners cooked their own food. Inside the camp there were many good cooks. Some people parked their cars outside the camp fence to catch the sounds of the beautiful German songs and get a sniff of the delicious German dishes being prepared inside the wall. Janice W. Williams of Wrightsville has a vivid memory of seeing a truck load of Germans passing through Johnson County one day. "One man stood in the back of the truck facing the front as their leader. I would watch them go through and they were strong, healthy men. Someone said they didn’t want to escape because they were out of the war and well fed," Mrs. Williams remembered.

One day while Oliver Bennett was working in the paint shop at the Naval Hospital, he noticed a German prisoner, by the name of S. Pretscher, sketching a picture of his girlfriend on a piece of scrap cardboard. Bennett was so impressed that he asked the man to paint a picture for him. Bennett secured the necessary materials - a linen towel stretched to form a canvas and a the paint. Pretscher went into his studio, a tent on the prison grounds, and diligently worked on the painting, which was a country scene from his homeland. Pretscher presented the painting to Bennett who remained friends after the war ended. The beautiful painting remains in the Bennett family today.

The prisoners came back for one more summer to help the farmers in harvesting their crops, which were still needed for the effort. With the end of the war in August of 1945, there was no longer a need for the camp. The camp closed in early January of 1946. Today, one lone barracks from the camp still stands at the corner of Troup Street and the railroad. It serves as a living reminder of the a time which we all hope will never be seen again.

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