Soldiers, after all

Ceremony at Fort Meade will honor German POWs buried there

November 17, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun reporter

In a small cemetery at Fort Meade, the base's installation commander and others will gather tomorrow in a section of 33 graves for a tradition of commemoration that dates back at least three decades.

But the fallen soldiers they will honor fought not for America, but against it. They were Germans fighting for the Nazis - and they were among thousands of Axis prisoners of war held in Maryland during World War II.

The annual ceremony - planned in conjunction with Germany's Day of Mourning, akin to Memorial Day - is organized by Fort Meade authorities at the request of the German Embassy. Col. Kenneth O. McCreedy, Fort Meade's installation commander, and a naval attache from the German Embassy will preside this year.

On Tuesday, the post will hold a similar, smaller ceremony for two Italian prisoners of war buried there.

Travis Edwards, an Army reservist who helped organize tomorrow's ceremony, sees no irony in honoring men who once fought for the enemy.

"At the end, it's a soldier that died fighting for their country," said Edwards, a community relations director at Fort Meade. "We remember that, not which country they were fighting for. They gave it all for their families ... just like we do."

Only one of the Germans buried at Fort Meade was an officer, and the post's historian points out that the prisoners were generally rank-and-file soldiers, not Nazi ideologues.

The soldiers are part of a little-discussed facet of the Second World War that brought at least 378,000 POWs to the United States. As many as 10,000 of them were scattered across 18 camp sites in Maryland, according to news accounts from the time.

From North Africa

The majority of prisoners were captured in North Africa in April 1943 when German forces there - about 330,000 - surrendered en masse, said Arnold Krammer, a history professor at Texas A&M University who wrote Nazi Prisoners of War in America.

With vast regions of Europe occupied by the Nazis, space for Allied prisoner camps was limited. So the POWs were shipped to America, many destined for camps in the Southwest, Krammer said.

At Fort Meade, an estimated 3,500 prisoners arrived between 1943 and 1946, said Robert Johnson, the post's historian.

The prisoners lived six to eight to a hut at Fort Meade. With a shortage of workers in the United States, many found work on farms throughout the region. In spare time they grew vegetables, and even took college courses. They prepared their own meals.

German prisoners in general lived comfortably in the U.S. camps, ate well and enjoyed wine or beer with their evening meals, Krammer said, adding that some nicknamed the camps "The Fritz Ritz."

"I've interviewed [the German prisoners] by the score, and I've never met one who didn't have the time of their lives," he said.

Lelio Tomasina, an Italian former prisoner at Fort Meade, told The Sun in 1993 that he and his comrades "were treated better than we were as soldiers in the Italian army, as if we were family. I never got mad one day about my prisoner days."

But one news account from the time reports that a prisoner hanged himself in the barracks at Fort Meade, and there were multiple escapes.

According to an account in The Sun, when German prisoners at Fort Meade were told of Germany's "capitulation," many wept tears of sympathy for their home country.

Some of the 33 German soldiers buried at Fort Meade died in the year after the war. Johnson said that Germany's infrastructure and economy had been destroyed, and there was no sense of urgency for some prisoners to return immediately after the war.

The cause of death for many of the 33 German prisoners is not clear, but one report states most of them died of natural causes.

They are buried in a cemetery across from a recycling center, in the shadow of a water tower.

The German prisoners are buried alongside Americans.

Not all of the Germans buried there were held at Fort Meade. The most notable, a German U-boat captain named Werner Henke, had been a prisoner at Fort Hunt, Va. He was fatally shot by guards there in June 1944 after he rushed the camp's barbed-wire fence in what was described as an escape attempt, according to news accounts.

Some have theorized that the incident was actually a suicide to avoid war crimes prosecution. Henke's U-boat had sunk or crippled 26 Allied ships during the war.

Tomorrow, a wreath will be placed on his grave, as a bugler plays taps.

McCreedy, Fort Meade's installation commander, will be part of the ceremony.

"I strongly believe that it is a sacred duty to honor those who have fallen in the service of their nations, wherever they may lie," McCreedy said in a statement.

But not all support the idea of honoring men who fought for a regime responsible for the slaughter of 6 million Jews.

"I wouldn't want to be associated with anything that commemorates German soldiers. It's like asking to commemorate the al-Qaida," said Samuel Ponczak, a 69-year-old Columbia resident who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland with his mother.

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