Delmarva’s World War II Prisoner Of War Camps

by Dana Kester-McCabe

As I watch the weekly migration of tourists flocking to our shorelines for vacation I am reminded of some not so willing visitors to our beautiful peninsula. I am not talking about recalcitrant teenagers who would rather do anything than be cooped up in a car or a small hotel room with their loving but annoying family. I am referring to World War II prisoners of war.

During the war years there was a labor shortage throughout the country with so many young men serving in the armed forces around the world. A lot of young women had also signed up for service that took them away from home or their farming chores. Produce from farms back here in the States was desperately needed not only to feed people at home but our troops abroad. So as the military began to capture enemy prisoners they were shipped back here to help out.

On Delmarva they delivered mostly German soldiers and some Italians captured in the North African theater of the war. By the end of the war there were over five hundred POW camps on US soil housing over 425,000 prisoners. Most, though not all the installations, were in the south where barracks or tents could cheaply accommodate the inhabitants for most of the year without need of heating. Here on Delmarva there were camps all over the peninsula. In Delaware there were camps in Bethany Beach, Bridgeville, Georgetown, Harrington, Leipsic, Lewes, and Slaughter Beach. On Maryland’s Eastern Shore there were camps in Berlin, Cambridge, Church Hill, Easton, Hurlock, and Westover. And on Virginia’s Eastern Shore there was a camp in Oyster near Cape Charles.

Once here the POW’s lived in simple accommodations that reflected the rules of the Geneva Convention of 1929. The barracks generally had indoor plumbing, and day rooms with German language books and magazines. There were usually rudimentary sports fields where the men could play soccer. One account says they were fed peanut butter sandwiches twice a day and given milk in the evening. But by and large records show they usually ate “three square meals a day”. One story tells of a summer treat they were given here of corn on the cob. This was met with great dismay by the Germans who had never seen corn used for anything other than feeding livestock. They wondered if they were being punished until they tried it. One beer a day was included as part of their rations. And though fraternization was strictly against the rules prisoners and their bosses or coworkers would from time to time enjoy a good party together over a few beers. One group of prisoners being transported back to camp during a hurricane in 1944 had to seek refuge at a Whaleyville farm where they were welcomed in. They entertained their hosts singing German folksongs till the storm quit blowing.

Prisoners worked in Delmarva’s lumber mills, farm fields, orchards, canneries, and poultry processing plants. They repaired the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach. Some were brought to Dover Air Field to do heavy lifting, and cleaning chores.

In Somerset County farmers and businesses paid eight cents a day per laborer. Prisoners could keep some of that money to spend on cigarettes and sundries. Employers paid the rest of the money directly to the government. In Delaware alone $2.4 million was raised to support the war with this program. This also did a lot to help the local economy. For example, in Somerset County annual farm profits during the Depression years of the 1930’s averaged around $1.5 million. At the height of the war, and the POW program, the county was now making $6 million annually. The Maryland tomato harvest of 1945 was said to have been saved by the POW initiative.

Some employers hired out their workers for more money to other people; sort of like subletting an apartment. They gave the prisoners extra rations and other perks and took their profits under the table. Even though this was strictly against the rules everybody seemed happy with the arrangement and kept it to themselves.

Many local farmers became so fond of their workers they wanted them to stay here once peace broke out. And, it was not uncommon for prisoners to have mutual feelings. They were not political for the most part and had no real grudge against the Americans. Some had been pressed into military service against their will to begin with, or had to sign up because they were very poor. Over time the prisoners earned more and more trust, and in many places they were only lightly guarded. POWs were often seen on the streets of Milford, enjoying day passes given as a reward for good behavior. In Bethany Beach they had teenage volunteers guarding the prisoners while they were out on work detail. One boy, Raymond Deputy, began guarding at the ripe old age of fourteen. His only weapon was a twelve-gauge shotgun with a single cartridge in it.

In some parts of the country camps near colleges allowed prisoners to take classes while they were here. But not all camps had such good luck. Dedicated Nazi’s had to be quarantined in their own barracks so they would not harm their less zealous comrades after some were injured or died in fights that broke out. Some POWs were killed while trying to escape. Across the bay at Fort Meade, five prisoners committed suicide when victory over Germany was declared. Here on Delmarva many captives were so well treated they were not sure they wanted to go home when the war was over. At the camp in Westover several men tried to escape after learning they were to be sent back to their homes in a region of Germany that was now controlled by the Russians.

By 1946 all prisoners of war held in the United States had been repatriated. There are many stories of former POW’s returning to Delmarva to see the place where they had waited out the end of the war. They were grateful for the good treatment they received here and happy to reconnect with the families they had worked for. We should not make light of the fact that they were forced to labor against their will even if their work fell within the rules of the Geneva Convention. But like many of our seasonal workers in the tourism industry today, they stayed here for a brief time, worked hard, and went home with stories of Eastern Shore hospitality. The big difference is they arrived as enemies and left as friends. I’d call that a bit of Delmarva magic.


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