Very few people knew in the 1940s, especially between 1942 and 1946 that there were hundreds of thousands German, Italian and Japanese prisoners-of-war held captive in their own backyard.
As vast groups of Germans or other Axis soldiers were captured in Europe, North Africa, the Pacific or even off the American coastline, these prisoners would need to be housed somewhere. So hundreds of prisoner-of-war camps were set up in forty-five states. Only three states never had prisoners; North Dakota, Nevada and Vermont.
The first group of POWs when German sailors rescued from U-boat 352, which sank off the coast of North Carolina on May 9, 1942. They were immediately confined at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Soon hundreds of German prisoners were shipped across the Atlantic to various ports in the United States. Eventually some 500 major and side POW camps were established.
The standards for housing were the same as any military barracks. The camps did have watchtowers located along a double barbed-wire fence, with floodlights. Some camps also used dog patrols.
Prisoners worked in the farms and fields of the region near the camps. Some did forest work and others worked in groves or crop fields. Also, education and entertainment were provided.
With the U.S. treating the enemy POWs well it was hoped the Axis governments would respond by treating the American soldiers admirably and fairly. German prisoners were very surprised by the amount and quality of the food they received. They quickly realized that life in an American POW camp was much more sumptuous than life in the German army. The German POWs were allowed to fly Nazi flags on holidays, display Nazi material and give the Nazi salute. Their only marked difference was the clothing which had ‘PW’ written on the outside.
Those escaping were very few. When caught and returned to camp, their punishment was bread and water for 30 days. There were more American criminal prisoners escaping from federal prisoners during this time then Germans. Those few that did escape were caught within three weeks, most of them even sooner.
The prisoner-of-war camps continued to function across the United States until the U. S. military was demobilized and the many thousands of American veterans returned to the work force. Then, some German prisoners were moved to England or France for a year to help rebuild those shattered countries, but by 1947 most had returned home to Germany.
Those prisoners who escaped for long period of time had FBI wanted posters with their photos scattered across the country for years. What several of them successfully managed to do was to escape into the mainstream of American system and live full lives.
The following are the six German POWs who escaped for the longest time before being recaptured. A few had most interesting lives with no one knowing of their past life.
Reinhold Wilhelm Pabel, a German army sergeant from Hamburg arrived as a POW in January 1944 to Norfolk, Virginia. He was educated as well as speaking English and Russian.
Pabel was first at Camp Grant then Camp Ellis and next moved to Camp Washington, Illinois. He dyed a pair of prison issue khaki pants blue, got a white shirt and hid them. When questioned by a guard he said the clothing was for a theatrical play the prisoners were putting together.
Reinhold ducked under the barbed wire on September 10, 1945, walked and hid in some nearby trees. Then, changed into his escape blue and white costume and walked down the highway in full view of the encampment. Nobody stopped him or questioned him.
He thumbed a ride to Peoria, Illinois, with a farmer, who did not pay attention or comment on Reinhold’s English with a German accent. Next by bus Reinhold traveled to Chicago. He used money he had saved from his selling off some of his German medals and supplies while at the POW camp.
Reinhold Wilhelm Pabel became Phillip Brick and applied for a Social Security card only 10 days after escaping. He went to work as a dishwasher, setting up pins at a bowling alley and for the circulation department of the Chicago Tribune newspaper. Even six months after his escape Reinhold aka Phillip even paid his federal income taxes.
He then worked as a bookstore clerk and really enjoyed the books. After working and saving his money, he eventually opened his own bookstore, named the Chicago Book Mart. It specialized in old, out-of-print books.
All this time he was on the FBI wanted list but still managed to live openly. He married an American girl, and they had a son.
The FBI finally located him in his bookstore in Chicago’s north side in March 9, 1953. He was one of only six POWs still on the loose. He had many friends and neighbors offer legal and financial assistance. However, he was returned to Germany with his family and set up a bookstore in Hamburg.
Reinhold was allowed back in America within a year and he remained here for 10 years before permanently returning to Hamburg. He authored several books. In 1955, his experiences as a prisoner inspired his book; “Enemies Are Human.” He came for a visit of the U.S. again in 1979 bring his son and daughter. In later years, his daughter, Lucie ran the bookstore in Hamburg.
Kurt Richard Westphal had been a big man, drove a truck and served as a German merchant seaman before being captured. Kurt managed to escape from Camp Swift in Bastrop County, Texas, in August 1945. Using the name Charly King, he successfully got out of the country, back to Europe and then Germany. Westphal was recaptured in Hamburg, Germany, in 1954.
Werner Paul Lueck was in Las Cruces, New Mexico. with 600 other prisoners. He managed to escape in November 1945. He was located in Mexico City, Mexico, in 1954.
Harry Girth was a Nazi paratrooper. He escaped Fort Dix, New Jersey in June 1946. He changed his name to Henry Kolmar and worked as an interior designer. Convinced by his fiancé’s family, he surrendered to authorities in New York City in May 1953 and had to leave the country. However, his fiancé married him before he was deported so he could later return.
Kurt Rossemeisl was a multilingual German officer, who spoke German, English, French, Dutch, Italian, Czech, Spanish, Russian and Malayan. He was placed in Camp Butner in North Carolina.
Kurt walked out the camp by pushing a wheelbarrow past the guards on August 4, 1945 and caught a train to Chicago. There he lived under the name Frank Ellis. He obtained a social security card, found employment and became a member of the local Moose lodge.
Growing tired of being on the run and looking over his shoulder, Rossmeisl finally turned himself in on May 10, 1959, some fourteen years after the end of the war.
Georg Gaertner was born December 1920 in Lesser Silesia (Poland). Serving with the German Army as a sergeant in Field Marshal Rommel’s African command he was captured in Tunis by the British in 1943. He was turned over to the U. S. Army and taken to Camp Deming in New Mexico to served as a camp translator.
He felt he had to escape for fear of being turned over to the Soviets at the end of the war which then held Lesser Silesia. So he made his escape on September 21, 1945 by going through the barbed wire fencing. Jumping onto a freight train he headed further west. His jobs included working as a share-cropper where he traveled across California by train. His new name was Dennis Whiles.
In 1952, he risked recognition when he led a ski patrol into Donner Pass in California, rescuing 200 passengers trapped aboard a snowbound train. However, he remained undiscovered for decades. He married an American woman, raised two stepchildren and worked as a ski instructor, tennis pro, artist and contractor.
Finally in 1985 he was ready to turn himself in which he did on the NBC morning show; ‘The Today Show’. It had been forty years since he left Camp Deming in New Mexico. Gaertner was the last POW captured. Even with being on the FBI’s most wanted for years, no charges were placed against him now.
He did co-write a book, “Hitler’s Last Soldier in America” where he writes about being a Nazi soldier, POW camp life and his method of mainstreaming himself into American life. In November 2009 while living in Colorado he became a U. S. citizen. Gaertner has the distinction of keeping his secret of being an escaped German POW longer than anyone else.