For many years in the Rome area, if someone would have mentioned the existence of a German prisoner of war camp, people may have not believed them.
However, Rome did indeed serve as a camp, and a worksite, for German POWs during World War II. Another camp was located in Boonville. Few articles have appeared in local newspapers about the camps.The lone remaining relic of their time here in the Mohawk Valley is the Divine Brothers building in Utica. That time serves as a marker in the nation’s history, as it is the final time that any U.S. enemies have been interned on our own soil.
Their treatment showed the best of our citizens, in that, even though the POWs were our country’s enemy, they were treated fairly and with dignity.
During the war, more than 350,000 Germans in 511 camps strewn across the United States called this country their prison. The interned Germans were governed under the Geneva Conventions, which dictated the prisoners were to be treated to the same standards as American servicemen.
They were paid 80 cents a day in the form of coupons renewable at a camp store.They were not allowed to drink beer or sodas or to eat candy bars, and were fed less than 4 ounces of meat per day. They had to roll their own cigarettes, and they worked 12 hours per day, according to news articles and documents.
Rome’s history with German POWs started in the summer of 1944, when the recently incorporated Oneida-Madison Canners company began negotiations for about 100 German prisoners of war interned at Pine Camp (present-day Fort Drum).The POWs were to begin canning operations in their factories, with one located in Rome where the Black River Shopping Center now stands.
However, the question was raised as to where the prisoners would reside. The first proposed camp was in nearby Oneida. On June 7, 1944, the aldermen of the Oneida Common Council passed a resolution, voting against the use of the city’s Armory as a camp, in a 5-0 decision. The resolution, prepared by Oneida City Attorney Walter E. Wilcox, referred to the possible damage to the building, and disturbance of the local community, among other objections.
Days later, officials of the nearby Rome Army Airfield (later Griffiss Air Force Base) disclaimed any knowledge that the prisoners would reside there. At first, the prisoners would live in the former Sauquoit Paper Company building at 200 Seward Ave. in Utica, recently purchased by the Divine Brothers Company, from where they would travel to Rome and other worksites daily. The prisoners would move from Utica to Hawkinsville in August of 1944 after the contract for the use of the Utica building expired.
A story from that time illustrates how some local citizens feared the German prisoners:
In May 1945, two Camden High School boys -- who were actually Boy Scouts -- were mistaken for escaped German POWs in Rome after they decided to “hike to the field” for an open house at Rome Army Airfield in their Boy Scout uniforms.They were stopped by authorities and questioned.
Despite the feelings of local citizens, 250 German POWs were sent to the Rome area in June 1945, under the command of 1st Lieutenant Carl H. Fridena, to alleviate manpower shortages.Their living quarters were located on the airfield. Their barracks were former Civilian Conservation Corps camp buildings brought to the airfield.
On Aug. 30, 1945, Dr. W.J. Bubb from the International Committee of the Red Cross visited the camp. He noted there were 30 American enlisted men and 290 prisoners of war. Of those, 184 of the men worked processing food off base, 36 worked on the post -- 10 as painters and carpenters within the POW compound along with 15 who served as cooks or “KP” -- with two prisoners assigned to administrative duties and one assigned as a medical attendant.The prisoners wore clothing with the letters “PW” on them.Their barracks were surrounded by barbed wire fences, and they were not allowed to fraternize with locals.
The prisoners at the camp came from Fort Niagara,near the Canadian border. They arrived with only one set of clothing and no towels, which were to be provided by Pine Camp at a later date. The Red Cross had sent the men a radio, but the radio could not be located.
During their time in Rome in 1945, one of the prisoners passed away. His name was Heinrich Schmidtmeier. His cause of death at the age of 40 was believed to be as a result of injuries from an automobile accident.However, Dr. Bubb’s report to the Red Cross mentions a prisoner recently passing away after an appendectomy. To date, he is the only known German POW to have died in the Rome-Utica area.His relatives in Germany could not be located, and he was buried in a POW cemetery in Great Bend in Jefferson County, near Fort Drum, according to the www.findagrave.com website.
On Oct. 4, 1945, the German POWs departed Rome, ending a unique chapter in the city’s history.
The town of Boonville also served as a place of work for the German Prisoners of War. On May 25, 1944, Lt. Col. Ray N. Cooley, the commanding officer of the Pine Camp German Prisoner of War Camp, announced that several sites that were formally C.C.C. (Civilian Conservation Corps) camps would be renovated by the War Department for housing POWs. This list included Boonville. On July 13, 1944, a group of more than 100 Germans, many captured on the Normandy beachhead, were brought to the former CCC camp for government contracted work with the Johnston Pulp Company of Port Leyden.
In mid-August, the POWs that were working in the former Utica camp were brought to Boonville to assist in alleviating further manpower shortages for the production of pulp wood. It could not be determined exactly when the POWs left the Boonville area. The last of the wooden huts that once were occupied by the prisoners were torn down in the 1960s, and replaced with red pine huts that were used by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as a storage center. In 1946, Camp Russell acquired a building from the former Boonville CCC Camp that was used to house the German prisoners. It was transported to the camp and today, the building is known as “Winter Lodge.”
This guest column was written for the Rome Historical Society by David J. Cooney, at the request of Chip Twellman Haley, retired Daily Sentinel news editor.Cooney, a resident of St. Petersburg, Fla., resides in the Town of Floyd during the school year. He is a senior history major at Utica College. He may be reached via e-mail at:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments, old photos, suggestions for future columns or guest columns may be e-mailed to:email@example.com.Copies of the books “Rome Through Our History, Volumes I and II,” collections of some of Haley’s columns, may be purchased at the Rome Historical Society.
The Rome Historical Society, 200 Church St., is open from 9 a.m. to 3p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.Go online at www.romehistoricalsociety.org, visit their Facebook page, or call 336-5870 for more information.