World War II POW Camps in Danville and Kentucky

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Transcript World War II POW Camps in Danville and Kentucky

Sketch of a POW Camp, camp and artist unknown
Michael J Denis, Parksville, KY, August, 2013
As US entered World War II, problem of what to do with
prisoners of war (POWs) became apparent, particularly
after Allied victories in North Africa.
From 1942 through 1945, over 430,000 POWs were
shipped to US. Most of 500 POW facilities were in
South and Southwest, but there were camps in Great
Plains and Midwest as well.
In September 1942, US agreed to take 50,000 German
POWs from Britain, total number to rise to 144,000.
After Allied victory in North Africa, additional 250,000
were added, with even more after capture of Sicily in
July 1943.
On September 23, 1942, two POW camps were authorized
for Kentucky, located at Camp Campbell (Union, Henderson
and Webster counties), Camp Campbell (Christian and
Trigg counties, and partly in Tennessee).
Due to arrival of so many new prisoners, and need to
balance security with productivity, a third facility was opened
at Fort Knox (Hardin, Meade, and Larue counties)
US supply ships took supplies to Europe, returned with
As more and more prisoners arrived, Kentucky saw its
share of them.
Began receiving prisoners in December 1942, Camp
Campbell housed 1804 German POWs, and closed in
May 1946.
Camp was built in present location of Hammond Heights.
Two additional stockades were built by prisoners.
Segregated barracks were built for Nazi and anti-Nazi
Prisoners here generally worked in special labor details,
and for farmers in area.
When last of prisoners of war were transferred from post
in April 1945, bodies of five of their countrymen were left
resting in a specially built cemetery.
When first began receiving prisoners, December 1942, had double barbedwire fence surrounding three compounds, holding 1,000 prisoners each.
There were nine guard towers, with searchlights, and three guards manning
towers at all times. Any prisoner attempting to escape would be warned,
then sentries would shoot to kill.
Kentucky Historical marker #1424 located on US 60 and Earl C Clements
Road reads: “Camp Breckinridge, Army post built in 1942, on 36,000 acres,
at a cost of $39,000,000. Named for John C. Breckinridge, US Vice
President, 1856-60; Confederate Secretary of War, 1865. Created as
infantry training center for up to 40,000 men. Used during WW II, 1943-46,
as prisoner of war camp for as many as 3,000 enlisted men of German
Army. Camp deactivated in 1949. (Reverse) Camp Breckinridge - During
Korean War, 1950-54, camp reopened for training of infantry. From 1954 to
1963 used for summer training of 4,500 National Guard troops. Disposal of
camp by Army began in 1963. Dept. of Labor obtained 853 acres for Job
Corps Training Center opened in 1965. Remaining acreage acquired by
individuals, city of Morganfield and state of Kentucky”
POW camp at Fort Knox established in February 1944, result of a War
Department policy change authorizing use of POWs, was operational until
June 1946.
Some POWs would have remained at Fort Knox, if they had been given
opportunity. One such POW was Willi Simon, returned to Europe, spent
several months in a French camp. His son, Peter Simon, in trying to find out
about his father’s time at Fort Knox, noted, "Compared to how Germans
were treated in Russian POW camps, this was a paradise."
His father, while at Fort Knox, spent his time at Fort Knox working on farms,
picking various crops. Treatment was not harsh, and he earned some
money, and enjoyed wood carving, products being given to some of camp
Another of documents that led Peter Simon to Fort Knox was a card from
International Red Cross sent to Willi’s family, stating that he was alive and in
U.S. family had been told he was missing in action, which often meant he
was dead.
American reaction further complicated by Geneva Convention of 1929, which
said POWs had to be fed, clothed and housed in same way their still-fighting
comrades were fed and housed; could not be used for forced labor or work
under dangerous conditions, though they could be paid; could not be used for
work that would aid their captor’s war effort; must be taken away from harm, and
must be provided with religious, medical, intellectual and physical facilities.
Germany and US signed in 1929; therefore both countries were bound by it.
During frequent inspections of American POW camps, no serious violations were
ever discovered. Same was not true of German or Japanese POW camps
housing Americans.
In camp canteens, German POWs were allowed to purchase food, soap,
tobacco, and other items, including chocolate, that were not available to average
American due to wartime rationing.
Caused resentment among ordinary Americans, many of whom probably did not
know ins and outs of Article 28 of Geneva Convention which required Army to
provide ordinary articles of daily living for POWs.
War Department finally authorized use of POW labor in February, 1944.
“At first there was a certain amount of apprehension … People thought of POWs
as Nazis. But half of the prisoners had no inclination to sympathize with the Nazi
Party.” Tom Buecker, curator, Fort Robinson Museum, Nebraska, though his
sentiments were widespread.
People were at first fearful, then apprehensive, knowing that POWs were trained
soldiers, and may have been shooting at, or even killing, local family members.
Some people complained that POWs were eating better than they were, but
most farmers accepted that a well-fed field worker was better than a
malnourished one.
At least two years of tobacco crops might have been lost had POWs not been
used to harvest leaf.
Fear of mass escapes became less of a concern to farmers, who were facing
severe labor shortages. Even some army officials feared escapes, but
decreasing labor pool and increasing numbers of men being drafted, led to a
change in policy.
Kentucky Senator A. B. “Happy” Chandler informed on March 12, 1943, that
crops would rot, and canning operations would be upset if POW labor was not to
be used on home front.
Thousands of POWs put to work in canneries, mills and farms, harvested crops,
and where security would be at a minimum. Only 2,222 of over 400,000
prisoners tried to escape, and most were captured quickly.
Massive numbers of POWs caused delays and miscommunications. American authorities
had to keep German authorities informed as to whereabouts of POWs, and Germans had to
let American authorities know personnel status of thousands of POWs.
There were some escapes. In one case, several POWs stole a jeep, then abandoned it
near Horse Cave, then moved on to Nashville, where they actually took in a couple of plays
before being recaptured.
In another case, in February 1945, a German paratrooper escaped and made it to
Nashville, where he boarded a city bus and rode around town before informing bus driver of
his wish to return to Fort Knox.
Although local farmers were not allowed to supplement POW’s diet, many did, thus drawing
reprimands from Army officials. This caused POWs to work even harder, as their labor was
obviously appreciated and rewarded by compassionate locals.
In German camps, unrepentant Nazis often threatened anti-Nazis, there were some
One incident of prisoner on prisoner violence occurred at Fort Knox, and resulted in guards
having to shoot seven prisoners, of whom two (Ernst Schlotter and Frederich Wolf ) later
Fort Knox still houses more than a dozen POW graves, some victims being shot in escape
attempts, others murdered by Nazis to keep them in line.
Any work done would have to comply with provisions of Geneva Convention of
At first, labor was confined to camps themselves, cooking, keeping grounds, and
tending gardens.
Shortly, work was extended to actual military base, and eventually to private
contractors, with POWs being paid for their labor, often with an 8-hour day, 5
days a week, to garner support of labor unions.
Basic Facilities of POW Camps:
Chapel - post exchange (100ft. by 20 ft.), Also barber shop and Latrine.
Theater - 100 ft. by 20 ft. Production of plays, musicals art exhibits. Seated 250.
School - (100 ft by 20 ft.) Three room building for education.
Workshop - (100 ft by 20 ft.) Camp maintenance.
Gymnasium - (100 ft by 20 ft.)
Company dayrooms - (72 ft. by 20 ft). Games, reading, lounging, writing letters.
Carpenter Shop - (100 ft. by 20 ft.)
Tailor Shop - (20 ft. by 20 ft.)
Libraries, 236 Bed Hospital, 4 Orchestras
Barracks – (20 ft by 120 ft). and faced with sheet rock and covered with tar paper.
Sports, theater, orchestras, movies (especially westerns) chess games and
books made camp like a “golden cage,” one prisoner said. Many of American
guards were first introduced to soccer by German and Italian POWs.
German prisoners, in particular, found diet at POW camp somewhat different.
Although they loved peanut butter, American white bread was greeted with at
least distaste, and at worst, stomach aches, Germans being used to black
breads like pumpernickel and rye.
However, once they became accustomed to “American” bread, many actually
gained weight. Many camps allowed POWs to plant gardens, both vegetable and
flowers, and POWs at Camp Campbell produced a bountiful crop in 1944. Each
barracks had at least one radio.
Larger camps, where many of POWs had been skilled artisans, had a craft shop,
and many pieces of artwork were created by prisoners.
Classes, often taught by Army officers, but sometimes by civilians, were offered
in English, accounting, history, drawing and design, construction techniques, and
other areas. Some POWs even enrolled in correspondence courses at
Universities of California, Chicago, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Some German brick masons, hired to repair chimneys on base at Fort Knox,
decorated chimneys with carvings of palm trees, symbolic of Rommel’s “Afrika
Korps”. Carvings are still there, though not readily apparent to casual observer.
In NCO Club at Camp Breckinridge, prisoner Daniel Mayer, with some assistance,
created a 20 by 30 foot mural, depicting a baroque castle in central Germany, along
with a lake and castle grounds.
Several years ago, Mayer’s daughter, who barely knew her father, visited Camp
Breckinridge, and saw artwork her father left behind, preserved in only building left
standing at Camp Breckinridge. Her father died shortly after finishing his work, at age
of 36, on September 21, 1945, and is buried in cemetery at camp.
Chapels and clergy were made available, sometimes using local clergy, other times
using POWs with clergy credentials, and chapels were utilized by all denominations in
POWs who died while in camp were buried with full military honors. Several photos
exist showing a coffin draped with German battle flag.
POW camp life was an improvement for many who had lived in “cold water flats” back
home; one prisoner told a Nebraska family, that no one was shooting at him here.
Hans Waecker, of Georgetown, Maine, was a POW who returned to Germany, then
immigrated to US, saying “Our treatment was excellent. Many POWs complained
about being POWs—no girlfriends, no contact with family. But food was excellent and
clothing adequate.”
Fort Knox Camp Bakery, above
Canteen at Fort Knox, right
Branch camps established because daily commute of prisoners was considered
too long, usually over 50 miles one way. In all, 511 branch camps were created,
including 11 in Kentucky, Shelbyville, Frankfort, Owensboro, Eminence,
Maysville, Lexington (2), and Danville (2), one being Darnall General Hospital,
and two others. Apparently, a branch camp was also established in Danville in
Once Army identified a need for branch camp, a team was sent to select a site,
which would provide proper housing and security. No new buildings could be
constructed, and as such, best sites often no buildings on them.
Army developed a “mobile unit” package, housing 250 POWs temporarily,
contained 42 tents 16’ by 16’, 6 or 7 men per tent. Additional tents set up for post
office and storage.
Four large tents used as a mess hall, shower, latrine, and chapel/recreation hall.
Entire camp surrounded by a single wire fence 282 by 550 feet, with portable
guard towers and searchlights at opposite corners.
For 250 POWs, there were about 160 officers and men guarding camp. Camp
guards numbered 30; “prisoner chasers” who accompanied POWS to and from
worksites numbered 70; 15 NCOs oversaw guards, and there were support staff
including cooks and clerks, 33 drivers and mechanics, and 5 medics. Five
officers were involved as a rule.
Prisoners who were seriously ill were often taken to local hospitals.
Boyle County agent John C. Brown announced on August 8, that German
prisoners of war would be arriving in Danville “next week” to help harvest
tobacco crop, due to extreme labor shortages, anticipated about 200
prisoners would be available.
Thursday, August 16, 1945, Boyle County Farm Bureau president Walter
Goggin, called meeting of all area farmers who needed help in harvesting
Announced that German POWs would be available to help harvest tobacco.
Farmers had made application for prisoner use, and were asked to meet at
2:00 p.m., Sunday afternoon, August 1 [sic, probably August 19] (though
Lexington Herald said meeting was Saturday.
Workers were needed in tobacco harvest, largely due to extreme shortage of
local manpower due to war. Farmers were told that federal government
would guarantee payment for use of prisoners, and that an advance of half
cost must be on deposit in a bank before farmers could use laborers.
Next day, Friday, August 17, 1945, a tent city, to serve farmers
in Boyle, Lincoln, Garrard and Mercer Counties, was being
erected on Hustonville Road, just beyond Danville city limits;
its specific location was in a “bottom” of Clark’s Run, to west of
where Hustonville Road crossed – nowadays, to west of
William Ball of Lexington, and John Vanarsdale of
Harrodsburg, were supervising erection of tents and stockade.
County Agent John C. Brown was instrumental in bringing
camp here due to serious labor shortage between now and
October 1.
Ball noted that camp would be turned over to army as soon as
it was ready, and that camp and guards will be under army
control. Supervision would be close, but not as close as in
previous years, as war in Europe had ended.
Danville branch camp probably was not located on or near present-day
Bonta Lane, which was at one time called “CCC Camp Road”.
There was a CCC Camp in Danville, Camp McDowell, and camp on Bonta
Lane was a Soil Conservation Service camp.
I have conflicting reports on where the camp was, but I am inclined to say
that it was located along Clark’s Run, off Hustonville Road, behind presentday AutoZone store).
Farmers were to call at camp, work POWs nine hours a day, and return
them in evening. Prisoners were paid $.45 per hour, with army providing all
food, clothing and supplies. Prisoners would keep $.80 per day, rest going to
government to pay for their upkeep.
Guy Ingram of Danville shared with me three work orders from his father-inlaw, for work to be done west of Danville, at Harlan’s Station and noted that
his wife, Anna (Russell) Ingram, remembers her mother cooking big meals,
including goods from garden, along with chicken, corn bread, and others.
They sat on ground around Russell garage, and as far as she could tell, they
were cheerful enough.
An army captain was camp’s commander, and guards were
also from army. Vanarsdale noted that prisoners are able to do
excellent work with little instruction and supervision. Visitors
are not allowed at camp, and both Brown and Ball said there
have been no attempts at escape, as they simply want to
work, earn money, and return to Germany as soon as
Nearly every source I encounter says that POWs were liked
by people who hired them for work. Getting to know them on a
personal level stripped away most of fear some people had
About 25 Danville prisoners also worked in Garrard Co,
contributing 2,385 man-hours of work. men began working in
Garrard August 20, coming from camp in Danville.
Darnall began as a second mental hospital for Kentucky, land purchased 1936 f
and groundbreaking 31 July 1937. Prisoners from LaGrange reformatory did
most of preparatory work, constructed buildings and erected a pump house.
Building was substantially complete by summer of 1941, but state had put most
of its effort into new reformatory at LaGrange. Without equipment, and
incomplete, war department leased property on July 15, 1941 for $1 a year,
operating it as Darnall Military Hospital, and until December 15, 1945.
Housed over 880 soldiers who suffered from psychiatric problems, and an
undetermined number of POWs. Over 12,100 patients were treated over its four
year existence.
At end of war, hospital was purchased by state for $120,00 plus $1 for buildings
and equipment, and on September 12, 1946, it was repurposed as Kentucky
State Hospital.
An unknown number of patients are buried in 2 cemeteries on property, although
Boyle County, Kentucky, Cemetery Records, 1792-1992, says there are 40
graves there, mostly from period after its use as a military hospital.
It is suspected some graves are those of German POWs that were housed here
during WW2.
Advocate-Messenger announced that POWs who had worked since August
20 would be returning to Fort Knox by September 15, unless other orders
were received.
However, farmers still needing help getting corn in next week were asked to
call a local number, as next week will probably be last week POW workers
would be available.
Between 85 and 100 prisoners worked in or around Boyle County, and as
work in tobacco fields wound down in Boyle, prisoners were transferred to
Lincoln County, to help with a later tobacco harvest.
POWs contributed over 12,000 man-hours, on 38 farms, and labor was
critical to getting tobacco crop in.
By September 16, season and contracts had ended (though note exception
above for September 22).
POWs returned to their base camp at Fort Knox, and stockade and camp at
Danville was taken down, leaving no trace of it here.
Three work orders for September 6, September
13, and September 22, 1945, were shared with me
by Guy Ingram of Danville, for work on Marcus
Russell farm near Salt River
 September 6, Fred Herzog, Gard Kempf, Guenther
Kuthe, Willi Meister and Richard Stahl
 September 13, Rudolf Dotzauer, Kurt Hendel, Karl
Meixner, Max Meixner and Rolf Odendahl
 September 22, Peter Fischer, Otto Hilz, Guenter
Jost, Josef Knoll and Albert Sonnermann.
Many German POWs had mixed feelings about end of war in
Europe. Some were happy to have survived, but were concerned
about families at home – after all they had seen newsreels as
well, but most simply wanted to know when they would be
returned home.
It would take significant time before German POWs were
returned, partly because war with Japan was continuing, need for
labor was still acute, and with end of war in Europe, Geneva
Convention no longer applied so more prisoners were being used
for labor.
Germany had been destroyed, and for humanitarian reasons,
Army determined not to add more mouths to feed and bodies to
house in that country. Army released a timetable showing that in
December 1945, 60,000 POWs would be returned; in January
1946, 70,000; in February 1946, 70,000; in March 1946, 83,000;
and in April 1946, 43,000.
Camp Breckinridge’s POWs had all left by mid-April, 1946;
Fort Campbell’s POW camp was deactivated on May 5, 1946,
and last of POWs left Fort Knox by June 1946.
Though all were returned, many have come back to US, to
visit, or “to stay and become citizens of nation who held them
captive but treated them fairly”.
Though there is interest among historic preservationists to
document and research camps, and with example of former
NCO club at Camp Breckinridge where Daniel Mayer and
Hanz Genz created beautiful murals, there is almost nothing
left of any of main camps, and branch camps have, like their
inmates, become history.