The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Monday, May 8, 1995                    TAG: 9505060048
SOURCE: Earl Swift 
                                             LENGTH: Long  :  278 lines


No rifle-toting sentries eye Mary Fulcher's little house today. Barbed wire no longer encloses the surrounding Thalia woods. Guard towers once visible through the trees are long gone.

Tarpaper walls are sheathed in paneling, and paintings of sylvan cart paths hang in place of pin-ups. Whispered escape schemes have given way to Top 40 radio. Out front, an azalea breastwork flowers where hobnail boots once tread.

But when the yard's thick-trunked oaks, maples and gums were saplings, Fulcher's house was home to Hitler's elite Afrika Korps.

From 1944 to 1946, this was Prisoner of War Side Camp 1326, also known as Camp Ashby, where 6,000 German troops passed the closing years of World War II.

They spent their nights in low-slung barracks scattered across 22 acres of woods and field north of the Virginia Beach Central Library, spent their days in forced labor at the region's farms and fertilizer plants. Hundreds of other Germans and Italians were penned in Suffolk, at Fort Story and the Norfolk Naval Base, and at what are now the Little Creek Amphibious Base and the Norfolk International terminals.

In all, 428,000 Axis soldiers were imprisoned in Hampton Roads, on the Eastern Shore and at camps dotted throughout the 48 states. Many were ardent Nazis. Some managed breakouts. Some never left.

It is a forgotten chapter in wartime history, but the United States held four times as many German POWs as Germany did Americans in World War II.

Their appearance was sudden: In December 1942, fewer than 2,000 enemy soldiers were incarcerated on American soil. A year later, nearly 173,000 lived behind the wire here, and by December 1944, that number had doubled.

Only vestiges remain of the 155 main camps and 511 branch camps built by war's end, save in the memories of those who witnessed them. Beach resident Wilson Sawyer remembers seeing German POWs when he was a student at Oceana High School. ``They worked in this field right across the road from the school, and they built a processing shed there,'' he said. ``It's still there: It's a lumber mill or something now.''

Virginia Beach Vice Mayor Harold Heischober, an Army captain at Fort Story, recalls frequent trips to Camp Ashby. ``The highest-ranking man was a regular German Army first sergeant,'' he said. ``And this fellow, when he shouted an order, it was just a picture to watch him. You could have heard it for five miles. He was a real soldier.''

Fulcher, whose family bought an Ashby barracks a year after the Germans left, remembers her gardening father digging up jars stuffed with tobacco, eyeglasses and other possessions.

And Joe Burroughs of Pungo was 10 years old when German POWs began working on his father's farm, clad in fatigues painted front and back with a large white ``PW''.

``We had a principal at Creeds School, Oscar Chaplin, who could speak German real good,'' Burroughs said. ``He had a son a couple years younger than I was, and his son wanted to go see the Germans, and I did too, so we drove up there.

``Mr. Chaplin spoke some German to them, and they all started running over. It scared me - I thought they were going to attack him.

``But they wanted to hug him, that's all.''

Of the camps in South Hampton Roads, Ashby was the largest. Originally designed to quarter troops guarding the region's beaches, it was thrown up in 1942 on land leased from the state.

At the time, the property's dominant feature was the Tidewater Victory Memorial Hospital, a tuberculosis sanitarium at Virginia Beach Boulevard and Thalia Road. That building, today part of the Willis Wayside Furniture complex, became the camp's headquarters.

In the woods to the north and east, GIs erected 20-by-100-foot barracks, each set on concrete blocks and heated by coal stoves, and laced the forest with gravel roads.

Even as the Cape Henry Defense Force settled into its new home, Allied armies in North Africa were routing the vaunted Afrika Korps, and suddenly faced the problem of corralling tens of thousands of German prisoners. Britain lacked the space to house them all; American leaders agreed to take half.

So in the spring of 1943, the first Nazi prisoners arrived by ship in Hampton Roads. Most were deloused, then loaded onto passenger trains bound for the deep South or the Southwest, where sprawling camps quickly sprang up.

``All were basically the same in layout,'' wrote Arnold Krammer, a Texas A&M University professor. ``The camp area contained several large compounds, each of which might hold a thousand or more men in 20 barracks. Each compound was like a miniature camp, containing four kitchens and mess halls, an auditorium, infirmary, chapel, canteen, latrines, recreation building and administration building.

``The entire POW camp was surrounded by high double fences, guard towers and search lights.''

By late 1943 the American troops at Ashby were needed elsewhere, and the War Department ordered its conversion to a POW stockade. It wasn't much to look at when it reopened on March 22, 1944: Newspaper accounts branded it a ``raw camp in the woods'' and ``unattractive, bare and dusty.''

Roads were elevated above the forest floor, offering guards a better view of their captives. ``The barracks were just wood with tarpaper over them,'' Heischober said. ``They had a parade grounds, and this is where they went in and played their soccer. It was about two or three acres, and had a wooden fence around it with barbed wire and sentries on top. That was the common area.''

A similar compound opened at Williamburg's Camp Peary, then a Navy boot camp and Seabee base. ``Their areas were fenced in,'' recalled Ray Bowers, a recruit there. ``Otherwise, they appeared the same as the areas lived in by the Americans.''

America's first prisoners were battle-hardened and intensely loyal. ``Among the toughest veterans of the war, they are fairly young men, but hard,'' the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch waxed, ``and their arrogance rests on their shoulders like a faded cloak of royal purple.''

At Peary, roughly four of five prisoners was a Nazi, figures Frank Weber of Huntingdon Beach, Calif., then a Navy pharmacist's mate. Their leader was a sergeant, ``a big fellow named Ackerman,'' whose icy disdain was mimicked by his troops.

``We had the fellows who were arrogant. They were angry. Diehards. These guys could be unbearable,'' Weber recalled. ``This one corporal got to me. I was young. I said, `God, they should have castrated you bastards,' just an offhand remark. And I was brought up for courts-martial.''

As the war progressed, so did the number of non-Nazis in the barracks. Camp officials made no effort to separate them from their pro-Hitler bunkmates. ``There was dissent. There were fistfights. Somebody got hit over the head with a table,'' Weber said. ``There were strong opinions.''

German soldier Wilhelm Schroeder's experience was shared by non-Nazis across the country. A week after his arrival at Fort Eustis, home to a massive POW compound, Schroeder was dragged out of his bunk and beaten by fellow inmates. He staggered outside and pleaded for a doctor.

``Medical examination substantiated his report of the attack,'' Army papers reported. ``Subject wrote letter to Army Transport commander on high seas advising him of his anti-Nazi views and democratic ideas. He fears that this letter fell into the hands of a fellow prisoner.''

Schroeder was transferred before he suffered further. Prisoners elsewhere weren't so fortunate. At Camp Tonkawa, Okla., a Nazi mob beat a fellow prisoner to death with clubs and broken milk bottles. Five inmates hanged for the crime.

POWs soon had less time to plan violence. As America's civilian workforce was called into uniform, the need for farmhands and factory workers grew desperate. The Geneva Convention of 1929 permitted forcing prisoners into labor that did not demean them or directly aid the Allied war effort. Military leaders soon came to see them as potential weapons on the homefront.

By mid-1944, Camp Ashby's prisoners were being trucked onto local farms to dig potatoes and harvest corn. Even before the camp opened, plans were in the works to put more than 500 Germans to work in 14 fertilizer camps that lined the Elizabeth River, despite worries expressed in Army communiques that Hampton Roads was ``especially sensitive, as to internal security.''

Other POWs held jobs in camp bakeries, canteens, hospitals and laundries. They built roads, graded lawns, dug ditches. At Fort Story, Italian captives staffed the motor pool. On the Eastern Shore, POWs saved the 1945 tomato crop. In the Midwest, more than 3,000 prisoners built a massive flood-control project on the Mississippi.

``I went over not every morning, but often, with a couple of my men, and we picked up a half a dozen or so German prisoners who worked in my battery,'' Heischober said. ``They worked as KPs, they cut the grass. They were very willing workers.''

Farmers and factories paid 80 cents a day for POW labor, of which prisoners received a dime. The rest was funnelled into the U.S. Treasury, helping the camps pay for themselves.

Heischober was so impressed with his workers that when he was assigned to enlarge Fort Story's Officers' Club, he suggested that Germans do it. ``We didn't even have an architect,'' he said. ``We worked from a set of plans drawn up by me and a couple of the German prisoners.''

``I never heard of anyone having any problem with them,'' Joe Burroughs said. ``They did take a lot of breaks. I heard my dad say that they'd work a couple hours and they'd have a coffee break. My dad and the other farmers weren't used to that.''

Happy in their work, well-fed and generally well-treated by their guards, many prisoners took a liking to camp life. Most compounds, including Ashby, featured POW newspapers, and American officials strived to offer other comforts of home.

Camp Somerset, just north of Crisfield on the Maryland Eastern Shore, boasted a library of 1,300 volumes, a regulation soccer field and an English-language school with six teachers. At nearby Camp Cambridge, prisoners assembled a theater troupe, a 14-member orchestra and a 40-voice choir.

``They made their barracks home,'' Camp Peary's Weber said. ``Not only were they clean, but they were decorated, with curtains on the windows. Each prisoner had made a little home around his bed. Floral designs were painted on the beams, those Pennsylvania Dutch sorts of designs.

``They could take kidneys, cabbage, whatever they had, and turn out a tremendous meal. They happened to have a guy who was a chef in one of the Rhine hotels, and what he and his people could do was remarkable. I still remember their kidney stew.''

Life at Peary ``wasn't bad,'' Ray Bowers agreed. ``They had soccer games. They had entertainment. They made the best of a bad deal, and they were very fortunate prisoners. We often had conversations with them in English. They all seemed to say that they wanted to live in America after the war.''

Some were unwilling to wait so long to see more of the country. At Ashby, 18 prisoners broke away from their guards to roam Princess Anne County. All were quickly recaptured.

Escapes were relatively rare - the rate was lower among POWs than criminals in federal prisons. For good reason: Of the 477 Germans who died in captivity, 56 were shot attempting break-outs.

Danger didn't lessen with distance from camp. Three U-boat crewmen on the lam in Tennessee were drinking from a mountain cabin's water pump when a tough old granny stepped out with a shotgun. The POWs waved off her orders to ``git.'' She blasted one. Later, told that she'd killed a Nazi POW, the woman sobbed: ``I thought they was Yankees.''

The presence of trigger-happy bad apples on some camp staffs didn't encourage escape, either. At Camp Salina, Utah, an unbalanced sentry sprayed sleeping Germans with a machine gun, killing nine and wounding 19. At Ashby, an American opened fire on POWs congregated in the common area. No one was hurt.

``That was the only incident that I recall, of that nature,'' Heischober said. ``The prisoners were so easily handled. They wanted to cooperate so badly. They wanted to go home.''

But a few enterprising inmates managed to slip into freedom. A member of Camp Somerset's theater group found himself costumed in a U.S. Army uniform for a camp play, and wore it right out of the gate. When the FBI snared him four months later, he was working at a New York perfumery and was a regular at the Metropolitan Opera.

At Camp Clinton, Miss., a German general in full uniform and polished boots strolled several miles into downtown Jackson to order a meal at a Walgreen's lunch counter. Sipping coffee when police arrived, he calmly paid his tab and asked for a receipt to show off in the barracks.

At war's end, 28 escaped Germans and 15 Italians remained at large. One escapee from a New Mexico camp finally turned himself in in 1984.

A year after the war ended, 22,000 POWs were herded through a re-education camp at Fort Eustis, where they were prepared for leadership roles in postwar Germany. Other prisoners, particularly still-loyal Nazis, were turned over to the English and French, who used them as miners and reconstruction laborers.

The American camps closed. Their sites were returned to former owners or sold to new ones. The nation's POW experience faded into historical footnote.

Virginia had 27 camps in August 1945, housing 17,000 prisoners. Most have been erased from the land. No sign remains of a branch camp in Suffolk, where 300 prisoners labored, or of the compound at old Camp Shelton, now part of Little Creek Amphibious Base.

Spokesmen at Camp Peary, now reputedly a CIA base, say all traces of its stockade are gone. Camp Patrick Henry, once a mammoth training and POW center, is now the Newport News-Williamsburg Airport. Camp Hill, in Newport News, is a trailer park. The Eastern Shore's Fort John Custis, a wildlife refuge.

The most enduring remnants of the POW compound at the old Norfolk Army Supply Base are miles away, in the Hampton National Cemetery. There, in a seldom-visited section of graves, stand the tombstones of Italian soldiers Angelo Vercesi and Pasquale Cerbone. Vercesi was electrocuted while working on a railroad siding. Cerbone drowned in the Lafayette River while swimming off Tanners Point.

At Fort Story, construction workers modifying the officers' club in recent years found German writing in the foundation's concrete. ``Dates, initials,'' Heischober said, ``which I very well remember the boys doing.''

Of Camp Ashby, meanwhile, little survives. Development along Virginia Beach Boulevard has exploded since the war, swallowing up the fields around the wire, and brick homes line curving streets where prisoners once played soccer.

But the shallow ghosts of drainage ditches slice through the woods beyond a small park off Thalia Road. They follow the lines of camp ditches outlined on Army Corps of Engineer maps.

And nestled among the neighborhood's modern houses is Fulcher's home at Bryan and Duncannon lanes. It and two other surviving camp structures were quarters used by German prisoners. All are single-story, no-nonsense buildings, with windows uniform in size and regularly spaced.

The other survivor, now cloaked in gray shingle at Lynn Shores Drive and Greencastle Lane, was the camp's ammunition depot.

Fulcher's father replaced her home's coal stove with a red-brick fireplace years ago. It's been decades since anyone unearthed a prisoner's jar in the yard. A modern kitchen has replaced long walks to the camp's wells.

Fulcher remembers those wells, however, just as she remembers playing in the ruins of the camp's recreation building when she was little. They were holes in the ground, 6 feet wide and obscured by weeds and vine.

``My granddaddy used to keep me from playing anywhere near them,'' she said. ``He used to tell me there were dead German soldiers in there.'' ILLUSTRATION: Staff photo by MARTIN SMITH-RODDEN

Mary Fulcher's house today, a former WWII barracks, in Virginia



Harold Heischober, an Army captain at Fort Story, recalls frequent

trips to Camp Ashby.

U.S. Army Photo

P.O.W.s at the Beach

B\W Blueprint

Blueprint for guard towers, Camp Hill, Newport News.

Color staff map by John Earle

Source: Army Corps of Engineers

Area shown: Camp Ashby