D. Ray Smith
After writing two articles about WWII POWs related to prominent Tennessees, Carolyn Krause decided to include this additional information about Tennessee POW camps during WWII. She relies on my good friend Bill Carey’s article for information on the Crossville camp.
During World War II, Tennessee hosted several camps that housed and fed German POWs. In her recent speech to the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee mentioned, in response to a question, the German POW camp in Tellico Plains, the town that saw the birth of his father, who was an American prisoner of war imprisoned in Germany.
German prisoners interned in the Tellico Plains POW camp did agricultural work, growing green beans on land owned by the Stokely Van Camp company, she said. The business sold canned beans. She added that some German prisoners of war also worked on her grandmother’s farm in Tellico Plains.
“She always fed the German POWs very well,” Judge Lee noted. “My grandmother said, ‘I’m going to feed them well because I hope someone in Germany feeds my son well. “”
After the Tellico Plains camp closed in 1945, some of the released German soldiers remained in Tennessee after the war. They did not want to return home to a devastated Germany and they apparently enjoyed the opportunities available to them in the United States.
There were at least four other German POW camps in Tennessee during World War II, according to a 2015 article in The Tennessee Magazine. In Bill Carey’s article titled,
“Ex-German soldier recalls life at Crossville POW camp,” he reported that German POWs had been interned at Camp Forrest, near Tullahoma; Camp Campbell, near Clarksville; Camp Tyson, Henry County; and Camp Crossville, Cumberland County.
Most POW camps in the state are gone, but the land where the Crossville POW camp stood is now the site of the Clyde York 4-H Center. The long white building near the entrance was part of the POW hospital. The center has been used for church retreats and every summer hundreds of children spend time there learning archery, swimming and teamwork.
Carey’s article focused on Gerhard Hennes, a German officer captured in North Africa on May 13, 1943. “Five months later, after short stints in a dozen different detention centers, he walks through the gates of Camp Crossville” , writes Carey. “He was imprisoned there for two years.
“After World War II, Hennes became an American citizen and in 2004 published “The Barbed Wire: POW in the USA” in which he gives a detailed description of life at Camp Crossville.
Carey said Hennes and his fellow inmates were treated relatively well, adding that “they were given new uniforms, they weren’t interrogated, and they were mostly left to their own German officers.”
Unlike German camps for American prisoners of war, including those that Judge Lee described in her recent speech, Camp Crossville offered three meals a day – probably plenty of nutritious and delicious food. In his book, Hennes wrote, “Breakfast included things long forgotten or newly cherished like scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, fresh orange, or V8 juice; all kinds of cereals; and hot buns soaked in maple syrup.
Hennes wrote that all German prisoners of war were paid. As a lieutenant, Hennes received $20 a month.
“The German prisoners used this money to buy beer, cigarettes, books and just about anything they chose to order from the Sears catalog,” Carey wrote. “They spent their time taking lessons given by other prisoners, taking part in tennis and football leagues which they organized, playing cards and drinking beer.”
Due to labor shortages in the area during World War II, German prisoners were regularly allowed out of Camp Crossville to work in factories and help farmers bring in crops. This was apparently also the situation at Tellico Plains POW camp.
Carey noted while reading Hennes’ book that there was “a turning point in his experience. It happened in the spring of 1945. After Germany’s surrender, all the prisoners of war were herded into a movie theater in Crossville where they saw a film containing footage of the liberation of the concentration camps run by the Nazis.
“We saw the emaciated bodies and empty eyes of the survivors,” Hennes wrote. “We saw the piles of naked bodies, starved to death. We have seen mass graves. We saw the ovens where tens of thousands of people had been cremated. We watched and watched in silence, struggling but unable to believe what we Germans had done to Jews, gypsies, prisoners of war and many others considered inferior or useless. None of us in Crossville will ever forget this documentary.
Hennes wrote that he and his fellow soldiers and officers were shocked to learn of the Holocaust. Watching this movie was “the day I underwent a profound transformation from being a hero to being a villain.”
Carey noted that “it was also the day the treatment of German POWs changed at Crossville – and probably at every POW camp in the United States. The quality and quantity of food was reduced and the treatment of prisoners by guards was changed.
“Part of this appears to have been a deliberate change in policy on the part of the US military. It may also have reflected the attitude of prison guards, no doubt equally moved by images of mass genocide.
“Shortly after Thanksgiving 1945, Hennes and the other prisoners of war were sent by train to New York, then by ship to Europe. Hennes then spent two more months in a POW camp at Attichy in France. There, food was scarce, conditions were overcrowded, and treatment was harsh.
“Life as a prisoner of war ended for Hennes on January 30, 1946. With the war behind him, he returned to the town where he grew up in Germany. He emigrated to the United States in 1953 and became a citizen five years later. Hennes then became a trustee of New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey and spent many years providing disaster relief through an international organization called Church World Service.
Carey ended the article with a quote from Hennes, who at the time of the magazine’s publication seven years ago was 92 and living in Crossville: “For most of my life I have been an American citizen. I am very proud of it and grateful for the opportunities the United States has given me. »
For more information on America’s wars, visit the free Military Memorial Museum, 20 South Main St., Crossville. https://militarymemorialmuseum-tn.org.
Thanks Carolyn for adding this information. And also glad Bill Carey’s research was helpful. The History for Kids website is: https://www.tnhistoryforkids.org.
For the full article Bill Carey wrote for Tennessee MagazIne: https://www.tnmagazine.org/former-german-soldier-recalls-life-at-crossville-pow-camp/.