FORT BENNING, Ga. — They are foreign enemies buried thousands of miles from home, but they are not forgotten.
Less than a week after U.S. soldiers were honored during Veterans Day, dignitaries on Wednesday were to gather and salute the hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war taken to camps in the United States during World War II — most of them in the South.
“The minimum you can do is honor these soldiers who sacrificed,” said Lt. Col. Herbert R. Sladek, a member of Fort Benning’s German Army liaison team, which hosts “Volkstrauertag” — Germany’s day of mourning.
“They were educated in another time period, with another political guideline. In their opinion, they also fought for freedom, liberty and for their fatherland. That’s why these people gave all they had — their own lives.”
An all-but-forgotten chapter of history
The camps are an all-but-forgotten part of history, but the prisoners did leave some remnants behind in southern Georgia and throughout the country. Some of them went on to become leaders of postwar Germany.
During World War II, the United States, which had no previous experience with POWs, hastily threw up 700 internment camps to detain 425,000 enemy soldiers, who were arriving sometimes at a rate of 30,000 a month.
The German internees are still remembered for their skills and hard work. With most of America’s young men overseas, the POWs helped overcome a labor shortage by harvesting crops and doing other physical labor for 80 cents a day.
“Volkstrauertag,” held in Germany on the third Sunday of November, started after World War I as Germans struggled to come to terms with the loss of 5 million countrymen.
On Wednesday, the ceremony at Fort Benning cemetery is expected to honor 44 German soldiers, including a highly decorated general. U.S. Army musicians will play the German equivalent of taps.
Among the invited guests are the German consul general in Atlanta and Fort Benning’s commander, Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley. Others include members of Rolling Thunder, a motorcycle club that focuses on POW-MIA issues, and “Klub Heimatland,” a German women’s group that tends the graves.
German women's club tends graves
“They are German soldiers and we feel like we want to pay our respects to them,” said Inge Wills, the club’s president. “It means something for us to do this for the families who cannot do it.”
About 860 of the German POWs are buried at 43 sites across the United States, according to the German War Graves Commission, a private charity based in Germany that registers, maintains and cares for the graves of the country’s war dead abroad. They died from illnesses, accidents and other causes.
The largest number, 108, are buried at the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tenn., which also has the graves of 78 World War I German POWs. Other major burial sites are Fort Sam Houston, Texas, with 133, Fort Riley, Kan., with 63 and Fort Reno, Okla., with 62, including the grave of a POW who was murdered by six fellow prisoners. They were executed.
Georgia had 40 camps with 11,800 prisoners at places like Fort Benning and what is now Fort Stewart near Savannah and Moody Air Force Base, near Valdosta. There were many smaller camps in rural areas such as Fargo, on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.
Lt. Gen. Willibald Borowietz, who was killed in an auto accident on July 1, 1945, is the highest-ranking POW buried at Fort Benning. According to his headstone, he received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves — the equivalent of the U.S. Medal of Honor.
POWs well treated, but ‘bored and unhappy’
“German POWs were treated very well,” said Arnold Krammer, a Texas A&M history professor who has written several books on German POWs. “In some cases they were given wine and beer with every meal. Of course, prison is still prison. They were bored and unhappy.”
But thousands returned to Germany fluent in English and “having a new love and respect for the United States,” Krammer said. Many climbed into the hierarchy of the postwar government, while others became business executives, writers and artists, he said.
U.S. farmers paid the government for the POWs’ work and the government then paid the POWs.
“Each prisoner could take back several hundred dollars or more, which helped lubricate the German economy,” Krammer said. “It was one of those programs that just worked out well for everybody.”
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