Alfons Gropp went under fire five months after the surrender of Germany and was most likely the last prisoner of war to escape Camp Breckinridge.
He fled from it on October 4, 1945. He and eight others who escaped between 1943 and 1945 appear to have escaped cleanly. I say that because The Gleaner never reported their recapture until late 1945.
I have collected Gleaner stories of prisoners of war in Breckinridge from May 1943 to December 1945. According to my count, The Gleaner has documented at least 23 escapes from the POW camp. Several fled more than once, such as George Hornauf and Anton Scheffer, who were captured the next day when they escaped on June 12, 1944, but there is no record of being caught when they fled with a third man on August 2.
Almost all prisoners of war in the camp were men and non-commissioned officers. An exception was Lieutenant Helmut von der Aue, a pilot who had been captured in North Africa. He escaped on January 18 and April 3, 1944, but was recaptured both times the following day. However, that did not stop him. After being transferred to Camp McCain near Beulah, Mississippi, he ran off again in January 1946 – with the wife of a plantation owner. It was a huge scandal. I wrote about May 27, 2018.
The prisoners began to escape almost as soon as they arrived at Camp Breckinridge. The US military acknowledged their existence in the camp in The Gleaner on May 27, 1943, and on June 3, the newspaper reported the recapture of three unnamed prisoners.
Most of the recaptured refugees were rounded up near the camp within a day or two of their departure. The main exceptions are three who escaped on June 3, 1944, but were not caught until 10 days later in DuQuoin, Illinois.
Some of the prisoners were devoted Nazis. Arnold Krammer, in his book Nazi Prisoners of War in America, tells of an embarrassing incident in late January 1944, when camp commandant Colonel Payton Winlock led a parade of hundreds of prisoners to the church. They happily sang the Horst Wessel Song, the Nazi Party’s bloodthirsty national anthem, but Winlock had no idea what they were singing. Walter Winchell gave Winlock a costume party on his national radio broadcast after hearing of the incident.
The prisoners printed their own newspaper, Die Brcke, which ran into problems in April 1945 for printing pro-Nazi images and sentences. According to Krammer and others, in most of the POW camps in America, there was tension and sometimes violence between pro-Nazi prisoners and anti-Nazi prisoners.
They largely left American guards alone. General policy was determined by the Americans, but the day-to-day programs and problems were dealt with by Germans.
However, stubborn Nazis paid a price for their non-cooperation. They were assigned to tough jobs like KP where they couldn’t earn more than 10 cents a day. More cooperative inmates worked in the camp to clean up the brush, incinerate trash and build roads. They were paid considerably more, which was deposited into their account of the commissioner, where they could buy cigarettes, soft drinks and the like.
According to The Gleaner of December 14, 1945, Breckinridge POWs saved the camp and the surrounding area nearly $ 4 million. About $ 3.5 million of that was for camping work, and $ 28,000 was saved by inmates growing crops in the camp. . Another $ 192,586 was paid to the US Treasury by farmers, who paid $ 2 a day per prisoner, although the prisoner saw only 80 cents of that.
Prisoners of war did a wide variety of outside work, harvesting hay, tobacco, peaches, apples, corn, and other crops. On December 5, 1945, The Gleaner contributed a story quoting Frank Street of Cardinal Farms as saying that since 1943, prisoners of war had harvested 100,000 bushels of apples and peaches that would otherwise have been lost due to labor shortages.
Farmers were limited to 10 prisoners at a time and were responsible for transport. Elliott Toy was the first Henderson County farmer to receive prisoners of war on June 21, 1943, where they were cutting corn that had not been harvested the previous season. The next day, the prisoners began to work for Ewing Galloway; a photo from Western Kentucky University shows them loading hay bales.
Agricultural labor is the way in which Camp Breckinridge prisoners of war are best remembered locally. Farmers praised their ethics and kindness. Bill Heppler was 9 years old in 1945 and Germans who couldn’t speak English were extremely strange to him, he told Garret Mathews for Mathews April 8, 2009, column in the Evansville Courier.
Heppler remembered flinching when one of them gave him a hug. At first I pulled back like he was some pervert, but it turns out he had a boy my age in Germany and must have thought I looked a lot like him. He said he was sorry that he hadn’t made more efforts to cross the language barrier. It’s like I’ve had the chance to learn something and I’ve given up.
Most of the writing on prisoners of war at Camp Breckinridge estimates that it held nearly 3,000 prisoners at its peak, although an article and photo in Life magazine dated November 13, 1944 reported that there were about 2,000 at the time. De Sprokkelaar of November 20, 1945, said the first 400 had been returned to Germany; five weeks later, on December 27, The Gleaner reported that there were only a few hundred prisoners of war left in the camp.
They lived and worked in companies of 200. Six days a week they got up at 6:45 am and marched to work at 7:30 am. They came back for lunch at 11am, went back to work at 1am, and stopped at 5am.
Inmates worked in the carpenter, paint and tin shops, as well as repairing typewriters, radios, and refrigerators. A skilled orthopedic technician helped provide American soldiers with braces and another prisoner of war developed X-ray scans, according to the Dec. 31, 1944 Evansville Courier & Press.
Probably the most unusual work performed by prisoners of war was the renovation of pianos and furniture for use in United States military daycare centers and service clubs, described in The Gleaner of August 15, 1945.
That was the brainchild of Sgt. John W. Perkins from Jellico, Tennessee. Most pianos were properly beaten up before being donated to the military. But among the prisoners was a Viennese piano maker, who gathered a crew of about 10 other men and set to work.
They’ve set up some sort of production line and can rebuild a piano in about two days, Perkins said. All the specialized tools required for this type of work were made by the inmates, and they used salvaged materials to make various replacement parts. The only thing we buy directly is varnish and that is not much.
The 1944 Life magazine article paints the most complete picture of the social and leisure activities for prisoners of war in Breckinridge, although an article by Gleaner dated June 10, 1944 describes the vibrant sports scene. The first prisoners searched for sugar, salt and vinegar in such quantities that they had to be rationed. Prisoners of war were given the same ration as American soldiers, but were allowed to cook them in the German style. They also got a pint of beer every day.
They liked Disney cartoons with subtitles but didn’t care much about war movies. Gardening was a popular hobby, although some of the first attempts involved swastikas in pebbles, so that was to be discouraged. Most everyone has heard about the murals in Breckinridge, so I don’t feel bad about cutting them off, but there were many other amateur artists in the camp.
They used scrap metal to build model airplanes, elaborate birdhouses and furniture. They made costumes from burlap sacks and staged theatrical productions in a theater they built. POW labor with commissioner’s money – also built a beer garden, bowling alley, tennis and handball courts, and fields for football and rugby.
The camp had 46 teams, each in football and handball. Boxing, wrestling, and table tennis were also popular.
The German Red Cross sent them books, cigarettes, chocolates and sardines, although they could supplement that with their commissioner money. But they showed extraordinary generosity, according to The Gleaner of October 20, 1945. They donated nearly $ 14,000 of their commissary bills to the International Red Cross, which was used to buy relief supplies for German POWs held outside the United States.
With musical instruments from the German Red Cross and War Prisoners Aid, they were able to form music groups and accompany improvised singing every night.
The Gleaner of April 12, 1945, reported on a speech to the Henderson Rotary Club by Major Hugh M. Patton, the camps’ public relations officer. He was apparently responding to a recent Congressional investigation into whether there was any truth to the allegations that prisoners of war were being coddled in the camp.
War-born hatred naturally sparked a desire for revenge on prisoners, he noted, but the Geneva Convention forbade that. If reprisals were taken against the German prisoners, our American boys in German camps would soon suffer the same fate.
100 YEARS AGO
John H. Lang’s grocery store featured Henderson’s first refrigerator that kept meat and vegetables fresh by mechanical means, according to The Gleaner of October 17, 1920. The refrigerator can be stored at any temperature, yet no ice is used.
50 YEARS AGO
October 1970 was a particularly deadly month for car accidents in Henderson County. The worst was a car-train collision near Corydon on October 17 that killed Lola Polley, 76; her two daughters, Alma Ward Tompkins, 46, and Sylvia Tompkins, 52; and Polley’s grandson, Donald P. Rutledge Jr., 8.
In another accident on Oct. 6, three people were killed on their way to work at Period Inc. They were John William Gibson, 65; Frances M. Fray, 53; and Guy Chick Ray, 52.
The third multi-fatal accident occurred near Robards on Oct. 11 and killed a Chicago couple on their way to Fort Campbell: William Stanley Wickers, 57, and his wife, Mary Ann Wickers, 56.
25 YEARS AGO
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet wanted to spend $ 1 million on a preliminary study of a bridge across the Ohio River to service proposed Interstate 69, according to a story about the cabinets’ six-year road plan in The Gleaner of October 19, 1995.
It was the first major release towards the bridge, which is still the last unfinished section of I-69 in this area.
Readers of The Gleaner can reach Frank Boyett at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BoyettFrank.
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