War up close

200 Axis soldiers – Germans, Polish and? Austrians ­– housed outside Sheffield as prisoners

Photo courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society Rudolf Hierl

It’s easy living where we get to feel in some sense disconnected from national and international events.

Much of what unfolds in Washington and around the world doesn’t have as much of an impact on us as we might like to think it does.

But for two years in the 1940s, international events occupied several acres on the top of Bull Hill outside Sheffield.

According to the Smithsonian, over 400,000 Axis prisoners were held in approximately 500 camps.

Originally built as the only Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Warren County, the camp was converted during World War II and approximately 200 German prisoners of war were housed there through the end of the war.

Photo courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society Albert Schade

Earlier this year Tom and Sue Curtin donated a series of photos of the prisoners, a clipping from a local paper of the event and other documents from the estate of William Kerr, who appears to have supervised some of the forestry work undertaken by the German soldiers, to the Warren County Historical Society, who shared the collection and the resources they have on the camp with the Times Observer for this story. The photos appear to be marked on the reverse with names and then addresses. I’m assuming those are the names and home residences of the men in the photos (though I acknowledge that might be mistaken). Individual information for prisoners held at each camp wasn’t information I was able to locate.

Another camp was created at Red Bridge and the prisoners from both camps were put to work in the forest cutting wood for the Johnsonburg chemical plant.

A 2016 Times Observer article cites a Historical Society document that states that “guarding them was easy. Where could they go? There was no danger that a counter-attack by the German (army) might free them.”

The source indicates that “attempted escapes were virtually non-existent in the records. It is recorded that… a few going for a walk in the woods got lost (but) they always came back home.”

The Wednesday, Aug. 8 Warren Times-Mirror reported on one such escape.

Photo courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society Bernhard Richter

“Alfred Maehrig, 25, was reported to have escaped while at work in the woods yesterday. State police and other agencies went to work in a search for the fellow and the FBI was notified. Later it was discovered that the fellow had become confused while in the woods and did not get to the point where the truck picked up the men. He walked into camp late at night having finally found his way through the woods. He was tired and hungry and evidently had no desire to run away.”

The document in the Historical Society’s archive also provides some background on the structure and governance of the camp.

“In compliance with the Geneva Regulations the prisoners ran their own camp. They were permitted privacy in their barracks. It is said that each had a swastika flag on his table beside his cot where he also kept pictures from home. They were permitted three packs of cigarettes and three bottles of beer a week if available. The prisoners had spokesmen and English speaking non com (non-commissioned officer) to whom their referred their complaints and grievances. It was noted that their spirits would rise or fall over the news they received about the ongoing war. When the news shows that the war was going badly for the Germans, there was a noticeable increase in tension and letter writing increased. Visiting chaplains conducted religious services and regular Sunday Services were held when the weather conditions permitted.”

A first-hand account of the camp comes from an “Around Sheffield with Larry Stotz” column published in a county newspaper in 1968.

That column included an interview with Kerr, whose estate the soldier’s photos came from.

Photo courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society Rudolf Halin

“Don Brooks had the contract for pulpwood cut by the prisoners and Bill Kerr worked under him as his assistant,” the column states. “The wood was cut on Armstrong Forest Company land by prisoners from the Bull Hill Camp and prisoners from the camp at Red Bridge.”

Photo courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society Theodor Haupel

Photo courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society Richard Schmidt