During World War II, Cape Cod’s Camp Edwards received about 5,000 German prisoners of war. They worked at a camp constructed to hold them much of the time, but they also picked strawberries in Cape Cod’s fields, worked at an Army-owned laundromat on King Street in Falmouth and processed eight million feet of lumber from trees blown down in the Hurricane of 1944.

Camp Edwards, now known as Joint Base Cape Cod, was built in 1935 on 22,000 acres of Upper Cape pine barrens when Governor James Curley signed a bill to appropriate funds for the purchase of a campsite and to establish a Military Reservation Commission. State and federal government collaborated to begin construction of two runways and buildings at Otis Field. It was named Camp Edwards after Major General Clarence Edwards, former commander of the US Army’s 26th Infantry Division. 

The prisoner-of-war camp was built during World War II on Cape Cod, with the water serving as a natural barrier, noted Donald (Jerry) Ellis of the Cape Cod Military Museum. 

The first POWs arrived after German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps was driven out of North Africa. The majority arrived in 1944 after the invasion of Normandy.

Mr. Ellis has copies of plans from April 1944 showing the camp at Block 35 on Camp Edwards. Some say it was located at the south end of the runway; Mr. Ellis says it was farther west, near the East Coast Processing Center where AWOL (Absent Without Leave) American servicemen were restrained. 

Next to Turpentine Road, the POW camp was slightly apart from the rest of the barracks. A stockade was built around the buildings with barbed wire fences, one that was electrified, with about 2,000 POWs housed there at a time. The 1114th System Control Unit (SCU) maintained security and managed the camp throughout the war.

In July 1944, the base commander gave a tour of the POW camp to the press, and the Enterprise reported it in great detail.

“The first newspapermen to be admitted to the Camp Edwards stockade watched by the roadside. They stared at the passing prisoners…. Some of the prisoners marched by with eyes fixed ahead. Most of them turned their heads to study as long and closely as they could the civilian groups.

“On the back of every garment was daubed the letters ‘PW’.”

As the commander showed the newsmen around, the prisoners would stand at alert until the colonel said “at ease” in German.

In the barracks, the POWs would play chess, read books, and work at their recreation hall, where they made scenery and built an orchestra pit and a stage for a play given by the drama club.  The Post Exchange (PX) had cigarettes, candy and other similar items. The prisoners did all the stockade work: cooking meals, maintaining the building, running the PX, doing the laundry.

“The stockade was once occupied by the 26th division,” the Enterprise reported, and “the Geneva convention had required that housing be provided that was equal to the captors’ own men in their base camps.” They were provided the same food that went to the camp’s own soldiers, which they cooked themselves. “Being German they go heavily for baked goods. They get extra potatoes and flour.”

The POWs got letters from home, and were given books, food and cigarettes. Radios were inspected, so they didn’t receive German short-wave transmissions. Some prisoners were even visited by relatives. Protestant and Catholic services were provided by the post chaplain.

“The newspaper visitor …. is bound to come away believing that the War Department’s policy is, as it avows, ‘fair but firm,” concluded the Enterprise article.

The prisoners were allowed to work for their captors, according to the Geneva Convention. Besides work at the camp, they were hired for contract labor, filling a void in the labor force due to the war. Under the government’s contract, prisoners were paid 80 cents a day in canteen coupons, and some could make up to $1.20. The coupons were used in their base PX. The farmers and others who hired them would pay the free market rate, with the difference paid to the Treasury department for the POW program.

The Army provided transportation and was responsible for security, sending guards to the work sites, with a guard for each 10 prisoners, reported the Enterprise.

The biggest POW project was harvesting the lumber from thousands of trees blown down in the hurricane of September 1944. The timber was processed by prisoners who had been trained by the War Department and Department of Conservation. They helped to clear the trees, repaired damage, and when back on the base, used portable sawmills for lumber that was used in military construction.

Earlier that year, during Falmouth’s strawberry harvest in June, POWs picked thousands of quarts of strawberries at locally owned farms. They were also employed to pick cranberries from area bogs. 

The Enterprise reported in 1945 that POWs were being “transported regularly to Falmouth to work in the quartermaster laundry on King street. Forty-five Germans are being used at the laundry, presumably because of difficulties in obtaining enough civilian help. The Army took over the Robbins laundry plant in January, 1943, and also the Acme Laundry plant in Chatham to serve Camp Edwards.”

Jerry Ellis, who is former chairman of the Bourne Historical Commission, said many people do not know the story of the POW camp, and not much has been written about it. As a child who lived in Sagamore during the war, he had several close encounters with POWs. He shared some of his memories. 

His first encounter, he said, was on a winter day in 1944 when his neighborhood had been surrounded by military police and his family stayed indoors. At night, he said he wanted to get outside, so he volunteered to get kerosene behind the barn. He turned around to see a man in dark clothing with PW in white letters on his jacket, then raced back into his home. The escaped POW was later caught under the Sagamore Bridge.

His second meeting was far less scary. His neighbor, who worked at the base as an engineer, invited two POWs to his home for dinner.  Mr. Ellis went outside to shoot baskets in his backyard, and they joined him even though they were not familiar with basketball. One of the POWs noticed a book on ships that Mr. Ellis was reading and told him about his experience in the navy. 

The next week, his neighbor gave him a present from the prisoner, a hand-carved boat and a German military insignia from a prisoner’s uniform. Mr. Ellis, who is 88, still has these mementos.

Mr. Ellis said that many POWs did not go back to Germany when the war ended in their home country. Cities in Europe, especially England, used prisoners of war to clean up after the war. A great many worked through 1946 before returning home.