German POWs were interned in Upper Peninsula

John Pepin

“You’re takin’ me back, a long, long, long time ago.” — Rick Nielson

In this northern hardwood stand, along the edge of a clearing, cracked concrete foundations lie below a blanket of dead leaves and rusted and worn strands of metal wire are twisted within the low branches of the trees.

A stretch of the North Country National Scenic Trail skirts the perimeter of this property. Without knowing the history of this place, hikers might walk right on through never realizing they were stepping over the remnants of a former prisoner of war camp that held about 200 men captured from Hitler’s German army during World War II.

The story of German prisoner of war camps in Michigan and across the nation is becoming more well-known, but was largely unheard of just a few years ago.

With Great Britain running out of room for POWs captured in North Africa and elsewhere, the U.S. reluctantly agreed to accept some. The prisoners were transported to America on return voyages of liberty ships that had carried U.S. troops to war in Europe.

German POWs arrived on the East Coast where they boarded trains to the interior of the country. Before being taken north to the Upper Peninsula on trains, the POWs were temporarily held in Illinois at two large camps that distributed POWs to several places in the Midwest.

Eventually, there would be roughly 375,000 German POWs held at more than 500 branch camps or 155 base camps across the United States, including five camps in the U.P. where the POWs were housed in barracks used during the previous decade for Civilian Conservation Corps workers.

The POWs performed various duties, depending on which region of the country they were held. In the U.P., prisoners worked to cut pulpwood, with paper being a vital material needed to support the war effort and there being a shortage of workers for local mills with much of the citizenry off to war.

During 1944, four of the POW camps — two in Alger County (AuTrain and Evelyn) and two in Houghton County (Sidnaw and Pori) — were established, with the fifth camp, in Chippewa County (Raco), set up in January 1945.

Each of the camps had an average of 220 POWs, two army officers and 38 enlisted men. Security was light with winter, POW unfamiliarity with local geography, remote nature of the region, mosquitoes and the inherent language barrier kept the POWs from escaping, or from getting too far in the limited number of escapes that did occur.

Beyond manned guard towers and a couple of strands of barbed wire, the camps were not fortified substantially.

Within these hardwoods in Alger County, along the North Country Trail, was once Camp AuTrain, established as a CCC Camp 3607 in July 1935 and re-opened as a POW camp in May 1944.

A former guard at the camp told stories of how the camp would help augment the menu in the mess hall by using a Thompson sub-machine gun to knock down stands of deer.

To protect the German POWs working in the woods during firearm deer hunting season, the soldiers would tie scraps of red cloth around the arms of the prisoners. The Germans apparently didn’t understand why this was being done and found it funny.

During a winter’s night after Christmastime, the guard said he was shocked to see a huge flame explode into the night sky from a chimney at the camp.

Sitting in the guard tower, he called other military personnel who told him someone had stuffed a Christmas tree into the fireplace, with the chimney caked with creosote, resulting in the nighttime fireball.

Army personnel didn’t know how the German POWs would react to being interned in America. In turn, they were concerned how the American public would react to German POWs in the area.

Camp guards were protecting the POWs as well as the public. American military and government officials wanted to treat the Germans well in hopes of Axis troops doing the same for American POWs overseas.

German POWs in some camps put on plays, sang in choirs, painted and drew pictures of pin-up girls and Hitler, carved musical instruments or other items out of wood and took a range of classes offered in the camps.

Many of the German POWs possessed a wide range of artistic talents. One POW at Camp AuTrain crafted a working cuckoo clock out of a cigar box. In a wide clearing, along the south edge of the camp, the POWs used to play soccer.

Sitting here in these woods, with a light snow falling, the former POW camp is silent and still, except for the occasional scolding of a blue jay or the tapping of a downy woodpecker.

On another level, the camp seems very alive to me. Knowing what occurred here nearly 75 years ago, it’s an interesting experience to sit in the woods and listen to the wind.

I can almost hear the German accents, see the tarpaper and lathe barracks, the military formations and the salutes. It’s strange to know my boots have walked where theirs have.

Against a small hillside, years ago, frost heaving exposed some of the old metal mess hall plates, saucers and coffee cups. They’re still here.

The German POW camps in the Upper Peninsula began to close in August 1945, with Camp Raco. Camps AuTrain, Sidnaw, Evelyn and Pori were all closed in April 1946.

During the 15 months German POWs worked for private contractors and government installations in Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, they performed labor valued at almost $9 million ($125 million in 2017 dollars).

POW labor in those three Midwest states reached its peak in August 1945 when nearly 15,000 POWs were working in over 25 communities out of 48 branch camps.

The remaining POW camp features are fading into the forests of the Upper Peninsula more and more each year.

Returning to the camp before he died, the old camp guard said he couldn’t recognize much of anything at the camp, with the maples towering to the sky and the remaining foundations crumbling back to the earth.

One day, nature and time will fully reclaim this place — chasing the ghosts off the soccer field and away from their timber cutting — leaving these snow-covered trees and fields to the blue jays, the woodpeckers, the deer and the dusty annals of history.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.