POW camps little-known part of island legacy
It’s the stuff of novels.
Three WWII German prisoner of war camps – established here in close proximity to the families of Jamestown – shared a topsecret mission: The re-education and democratization of POWs before their repatriation to Germany.
Alcina (Lopes) Blair, a lifelong resident of Jamestown, remembers watching – as a young teenager – “prisoners go by in trucks.”
She surmised that they were on the way to the dump as they traveled along Southwest Avenue.
One of the POW camps, more think-tank than prison, was nicknamed “The Factory” and was located at Ft. Kearney, across the West Passage in Saunderstown.
The other two camps were right here in Jamestown at Ft. Getty and Ft. Wetherill.
On June 29, 1945, the Newport Daily News announced the arrival of “500 Nazi Prisoners... soon to occupy Fort Getty in Jamestown.” As the war wound down and “the threat of attack on this coast had passed, Fort Getty was turned into a motor pool to which use it had been put for the last year.”
The article gave details on the purpose of the camps and their occupants.
“As is the case of the prisoners at Ft. Kearney, in Saunderstown, the prisoners at Getty will be entirely preoccupied on military projects within the camp boundaries and will not be available for outside contract work.”
Islander Walter Schroder offers a unique perspective on the subject.
A Jamestown resident for more than three decades following the war, Schroder wrote “Stars and Swastikas: The Boy Who Wore Two Uniforms,” detailing his birth and childhood in Rhode Island and his family’s subsequent return to Germany.
As a 15-year-old German Army anti-aircraft crewmember, Schroder was captured, served time in a British-run German POW camp in Belgium, enlisted and trained in the U.S. Army, and served in the occupying force in his father’s homeland.
In “Defenses of Narragansett Bay in World War II,” Schroder offers important context.
“During World War II, close to 370,000 German prisoners of war were interned in 378 camps across America,” he wrote.
One of the aims of the re-education programs, according to Schroder, was to offset the ongoing brutal treatment in German POW camps of anti-Nazi prisoners by their pro-Nazi colleagues – often officers. The re-education sought to give voice and structure to prisoners with opposing views.
Dan Stets’ article, “The Spirit of Kearney” appeared in the Providence Journal on July 18, 1982. Stets explained that prisoners sent to Ft. Kearney “were hand picked according to two criteria: intelligence and hostility toward the Nazis.”
“Almost all had served in Hitler’s army against their will,” Stets wrote.
Jamestowner Delores Christman, 15 at the time, remembers the POW trucks going up and down Southwest Avenue to and from Ft. Getty.
“They would wave at us and we would wave at them,” she said.
In a 2008 article for Weider History Group’s bi-weekly magazine, “WWII,” Ronald Bailey noted that The Factory combined 85 exceptional German POWs – “former editors, professors, writers and linguists” and their U.S. captors – distinguished professionals and noted civilian educators from Brown and Harvard.
It was here, Bailey contended, that this unique collective oversaw a complex and ever-evolving plan for giving democracy the best chance of gaining a foothold in postwar Germany.
At The Factory, Bailey wrote, “they worked to produce, edit or review books, newspapers, films, in order to re-educate their countrymen interned in...POW camps across the United States.”
Alcina Blair remembers the Carr School that used to occupy the site where McQuade’s Market now sits. She recalls sitting with her brother on the corner of Southwest Avenue, watching the Army repair the road after the heavy equipment that brought in the big guns during the war had torn it up.
“We used to play in the field by the school” for as long as the daylight would permit, she said.
It was, she added, “a simple life.”
Bailey describes The Factory as “the world’s most relaxed prison camp. Ft. Kearney had no armed guards or guard towers. The Germans would travel from there in Army trucks on the ferry to Jamestown, R.I. to pick up supplies, socializing with passengers who had no idea that they were chatting with POWs.”
One way in which the Ft. Kearney group was able to influence their imprisoned colleagues was a regularly published newspaper, “Der Ruf” (The Call).
“Der Ruf” eventually found committed readers in 140 of the U.S. camps, according to Stets.
According to Bailey, “The Ft. Kearney experiment proved so successful that new schools were created at Fort Getty and Ft. Wetherill...training administrative personnel at Getty and policemen at Wetherill.”
Schroder contends that all three schools were part of the original plan.
He is quick to point out that the prisoners at Fts. Getty and Wetherill were “not allowed to walk around town.”
One night, Blair recalled, two prisoners, who were lost, appeared on the front porch of their Windsor St. home.
“My mother and father were concerned and called the chief of police who came and got them,” she said. “They were not escaping. They were lost.”
“The Historic and Architectural Resources of Jamestown,” published by the Jamestown Philomenian Library, says that, “Groups of German POWs passed through the school every 60 days. The last class graduated in December 1945. In all, 1,166 German prisoners completed the schools at Ft. Getty and Ft. Wetherill.”
The Newport Daily News of Sept. 21, 1945 featured an article titled, “War Dept. Tells Facts of Prisoner Schools – Secret Operations at Bay Forts Bared to the Press.”
Remarkably, the U.S. War Department’s detailed description of the plan that followed fully revealed the previously top-secret effort to extend democratic values to a formerly fascist and vanquished enemy.
It would appear that Jamestown, host to this remarkable experiment but relatively unchanged by the experience, went back to living – as Alcina Blair called it – “a simple life.”