Thursday, April 28, 2016

POW Labor Camps in the Adirondacks

PineCamp1942The word Adirondack calls to mind many things — natural beauty, family playground, sporting opportunities, colorful history — but nothing so dark as prisoner-of-war host.

Yet during the last world war (let’s hope it was the last), followers of Hitler and Mussolini populated the North Country. Volumes have been written about the suffering endured in POW camps, but for countries adhering to the Geneva Conventions, there was a clear set of rules to follow. Among them was that prisoners must receive adequate provisions and supplies (food, clothing, living quarters), and if put to work, they must be paid.

During World War II, more than 400,000 such prisoners were housed in camps hosted by nearly every state in the union. Before America entered the war in December 1941, Canada had already been in the battle for two years and had brought thousands of Axis prisoners to Quebec and Ontario. Escapes were frequent, as were regional headlines touting the recapture in northern New York of dozens of POWs who were returned to Canadian authorities.

As the American war machine rolled into high gear and millions of US citizens departed for Europe, a huge manpower vacuum was created at home. Much of it, especially factory work, was famously filled by Rosie the Riveters. But by mid-1943, after 18 months of drafts and enlistments, the nation’s farms were desperate for laborers to harvest crops and maintain dairies. Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) near Watertown did its part, sending 47 soldiers with farming experience to help in the area’s hay fields, but when a shortage of able-bodied workers foretold heavy crop losses, a more comprehensive solution was needed.

When the surrender of Italy was announced on September 8, New York Governor Thomas Dewey seized the opportunity, reaching out immediately to General George Marshall, US army chief of staff. In a telegram, Dewey described the shortage of labor in New York’s canneries and farm fields as critical, noting that the pressing need could be met by Italian Prisoners of War through the War Manpower Commission. “I urgently hope you can approve use of at least 1,200 Italian war prisoners in New York State for this work. Immediate action is necessary to save the food produced and processed in this state.”

Under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners needed suitable living quarters, and for that, Dewey had a solution at hand. As the war progressed, it had become evident that space was needed in the US to house POWs, and to that end, a prison camp had been constructed inside of Pine Camp near the village of Black River. Separated from the rest of the base by a high stockade, it included housing for 1,000 prisoners in dozens of one-story wooden structures. Watchtowers topped by large spotlights were manned by Pine Camp soldiers, who operated the facility and would serve as prison guards at each POW work site.

Marshall wasted no time in granting Dewey’s request, and within two weeks of Italy’s surrender, 999 Italian POWs arrived at Pine Camp. Shortly after, about 800 of them were shipped to western New York in a two-mile-long, 60-truck convoy accompanied by a heavy security detail that included military and state-police escorts. At their assigned destinations, the prisoners were put to work in orchards and factories, where they were paid the prevailing wage. The soldiers who were assisting North Country farmers during haying season returned to Pine Camp and were replaced by POWs.

The labor infusion was an immediate success, and soon expanded to lumber companies, who were experiencing an acute manpower shortage that threatened to reduce annual production by 33 percent. At Glens Falls, at least 14 lumber companies requested various numbers of workers totaling about 200, who would be drawn from the ranks of men finishing up orchard work. The logging companies were each held responsible for transporting and housing POWs. The majority of lumber companies had their own quarters available on site, and at Bolton and Warrensburg, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp buildings were available. Firms using POW labor were based in Chestertown, Glens Falls, Lake George, Lake Luzerne, North Creek, Warrensburg, and Wevertown. Prisoners from Pine Camp were also used to harvest pulpwood at Boonville, Conifer, Old Forge, and other locations in and around the Adirondacks.

In early 1944, shortly after several hundred German POWs from North Africa arrived at Pine Camp, many were allocated to various logging operations in the Adirondacks. Renovation of the CCC camp about three miles southeast of Harrisville was begun in anticipation of the arrival of 160 German POWs, who would be trained and employed there by the St. Regis Paper Company. Camps were also set up that year at Boonville, Newcomb, and a dozen other sites across the state.

The commanding officer of Pine Camp’s prisoner-of-war section, Lieutenant Ray Cooley, ensured that all branch camps were enclosed in stockades and that the prisoners were guarded closely. Later in the year, as a reward for good behavior at Pine Camp, Italian POWs in groups of up to 30 were allowed to visit Watertown in the company of American officers — but bars, dance halls, and certain streets were designated as off-limits. The men were identified as POWs with a green band marked ITALY worn on their left arms.

Among the incidents involving POWs at Pine Camp was an escape attempt in 1945 by a 20-year-old German who had been there since his capture at Normandy in June 1944. A guard in one of the towers shot the young man, who suffered serious injuries. Ironically, his attempt was made just two months before Germany surrendered.

When the war ended, the North Country’s population of POWs, as well as those from across the country, were transported back to Europe and placed under control of the American and French armies for the reconstruction process.

Photo of a section of Pine Camp from the 1940 booklet First Army Maneuver by the Santway Photo-Craft Company of Watertown.

Related Stories

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

14 Responses

  1. M.P. Heller says:

    Paul Smith’s College was meant to host it’s first class in 41. Due to the war it was used as a signal corps training facility. The first class matriculation in 46 and graduated in 48. There were 8 and they all served in the war. Many of those individuals were disabled. Recently had the honor to meet a graduate born in 26 who served and graduated in the second class, 1949. He is the oldest living alumni and a human treasure.

    M.P. Heller
    Paul Smith’s
    Class of 03

    • Reg Bowley says:

      Mr. Heller –

      Thanks very much for your comment. I happened to acquire two new-in-the-crate US Naval signal lights (searchlights with the signaling blinds) dated May 1945. I’ve always wondered why the crates are labelled Paul Smith’s. Your comment explains that. Thanks!

      R. Bowley

  2. Larry says:

    The numbers are a bit confusing (graduated in 1948, but served in the war that ended in 1945?), unless you’re referring to the Korean Conflict.
    Although this is not related to the POW issue, in 1942, Paul Smiths began hosting a six-month radio course for the army … repair and maintenance of Signal Corps radio equipment. In 1943, Paul Smiths began hosting the Second Service Command’s Signal Corps Training School, a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAC) program. After a six-month course on radio and telephone communications, the women were off to Hunter College in New York City for boot camp (basic training).

    • M.P. Heller says:

      Why are you confused? Not everyone who served remained enlisted until 1945. Being that only 2 year degrees were offered until almost the 21st century why couldn’t someone have served and graduated in 1948 or 49? Do you think that Mr. B, who was born in 26 couldn’t have served AND graduated in 49 with a 2 year degree? I can put you in touch with him if you doubt my claim. He will undoubtedly clear up your understanding of the situation.

      • Larry says:

        I was referring to men and women who trained at Paul Smiths and took that training to the battlefield during WWII … training that was used to help win the war, which ended in 1945. The military needed men and women quickly, so all sorts of training programs (like the six-month courses at Paul Smiths) across the country were accelerated due to the urgent need. The reference to post-war matriculation and graduation was confusing because the story was about using certain Adirondack facilities as part of the war effort.

  3. Richard MacKinnon says:

    It would be interesting to know when the Adirondack POW camps were actually cleared. Many of the U.S. camps were still in business in 1946 and there is a recent book, “The Train to Crystal City” which tells of a Texas camp that remained open until 1948. Several reasons account for the fact that rarely did the POWs return immediately to Germany: [1] The Provost Marshall General was not anxious to have former German enemy soldiers complicating the U.S. occupation of Europe, especially with the huge number of displaced persons to sort out in the growing D.P. camps; [2] some German POWs felt they had nothing to return to in Germany {more than a few that did come home returned to America and started families and hold reunions}; [3] U.S. industries took time to sort out their labor needs which had been greatly-helped by POW labor; [4] shipping priorities to Europe favored supplies to help reconstitute the economies and livelihood of devastated Europe {if not England}; and [5] certain POW camps were ear-marked for “hard core” Nazis whom U.S. Army authorities did not want landing in the middle of efforts to denazify Germany {e.g. call it the avoidance of sending mixed messages}.

    So in sum, some POWs were anxious to get home pronto and became bitter over delays while others had learned to enjoy America for its “three squares-a-day” and especially after they started getting news of the hardships now playing out in Europe and the truth of the holocaust. Significant “re-education” programs were undertaken by military civil affairs cadres in an effort to return to Germany a “better German.” During much of their stay in America the POWs received excellent rations and treatment in the hope that German authorities would reciprocate. Toward the end of WW II when the reality became widely known of Germany’s harsh and lethal treatment accorded both our POWs and Jews , the U.S. Army responded to the howls of outrage which started growing in America and quickly dialed back the premium treatment of German POWs in America–no more Mr. Nice Guy. Such was also the case among our combat troops storming Germany in the last year of the war when German atrocities against captured Allies fueled the “take no prisoners” outlook which took root among the Allied troopers. One more gruesome and self-defeating reality that became the unhappy norm.

  4. Paul says:

    There were POW’s at a camp that was owned by the St. Regis Paper Company on land they owned near Santa Clara. I have seen old pictures fro then. Not sure if this was widespread with the company. There is a history of the company written so you maybe could find more information there.

  5. Paul says:

    There were POW’s at a camp that was owned by the St. Regis Paper Company near Santa Clara. I have seen old pictures from then. Not sure if this was widespread with the company. There is a history of the company written so you maybe could find more information there. To think we paid money to go to the same kind of camps we just called them “hunting” camps!

  6. Bruce says:

    Based on the reading I have done, it seems there were few real escape attempts from US mainland POW camps, probably for two reasons…they were treated fairly well, and the chances of getting back to their home country on their own were virtually non existent.

    Accounts of the “Great Escape” in Arizona, lead by a U-boat Captain reads a lot like the similar event in Germany, where American and British POW’s escaped via a tunnel. The worst punishment they got after being re-captured was bread and water for as many days as they were gone, which was about a month for the last one.

    • Richard MacKinnon says:

      There is a great article in “Downeast Magazine 12/10/2014” with photos of the POW logging camp, Hobbstown, at Spencer Lake, Maine. It features the great man hunt unleashed in the middle of winter when several POWs went on the run, March 1945. They were captured after three days with the help of the local resident hermit. Upon their return to the logging camp, the three POWs said their escape was motivated not by unhappiness with the regimen of the camp but rather by a desire to avoid another season of black flies and no-see-‘ums. Welcome to Northern New England! This camp was not emptied until April 1946.

  7. Nicole says:

    Can people go there and take pictures and hike around? If so how would one go about locating it?

    • Richard MacKinnon says:

      If you are referring to the camp at Spencer Lake, I believe there is a book with a ton of information about what the towns people thought. Start with the “Down East” article.

  8. Anna says:

    Hi my grandfather was one who was in this camp. He even met my grandmother here. Is this still around to see?

  9. Barbara Smith says:

    Never heard of this. Glad the Americans took good care of their prisoners. This was not the case of my father. Captured in Vichy France and held in German prison camp. Tortured,starved. He relived every horrible moment when he was dying at age 70. He left Fort Edward New York as a healthy teenager and returned as a broken man. Thanks for sharing this historic information

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox