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.