World War II camp had impact on city
By MICHAEL HAWFIELD
from the archives of The News-Sentinel
Many in Fort Wayne know that Baer Field airport began as a World War II air base. But northeast of McMillen Park, just east of Wayne Trace and between the old Pennsylvania Railroad tracks on the north and Moeller Road on the
south, a new stand of young woods is all that remains of an important World
War II facility.
Here stood Camp Thomas A. Scott, originally a training center for the
Army's Railroad Operating Battalions. But at the end of the war, it was the
detention center for more than 600 German prisoners of war, mostly from Field
Marshall Erwin Rommel's famed Afrika Korps.
Fort Wayne had been a railroad hub of the Midwest, especially for the
Pennsylvania Railroad. Here began the Pennsy "Lines West," a point from which
powerful steam locomotives, many of which were designed and built in Fort
Wayne, were tested for speed. Since the 1860s, the Pennsy Shops had been one
of the most important design, construction and repair centers of the nation.
It was only natural when World War II broke out that Fort Wayne was chosen
by the U.S. Army as a place where men would be trained to operate the Army's
railroads overseas. The camp was named for the first president of the
Pennsylvania Railroad, Thomas A. Scott, who had organized and operated the
first military railroad during the Civil War.
Seven railroad operating battalions were trained in Fort Wayne between 1942
and 1944. So good was their training here that one of these, the 730th R.O.B.,
boasted after it was shipped overseas that by 1945 it had moved more than 5
million tons of war materials through the "Persian Corridor" with no
Open houses were given in Fort Wayne when new battalions arrived for
training. The city also enthusiastically supported the Fort Wayne Service
Men's Club on Washington Boulevard. With its canteen, library, music room,
billiards room and dance floor, the club was a home away from home for
hundreds of servicemen.
The training facility closed in mid-1944, when the last battalion was
shipped overseas. By September, ominous machine-gun towers and barbed-wire
fencing appeared along Moeller Road and Wayne Trace. Soon after, more than 600
prisoners arrived to live in the camp's frame and tar paper houses. Prisoners
of war had been housed in the county for some time, having been transported
from the large camp in Defiance, Ohio. But this was the first time prisoners
were actually billeted in Fort Wayne.
There seems to have been no connection between the arrival of the German
prisoners of war and Fort Wayne's proud German heritage. There simply was a
manpower shortage in the Allen County area, in both industry and agriculture,
as well as an overcrowding of prisoners in the older camps.
German immigrants had been settling in Fort Wayne and the surrounding
region since the 1830s, in the days of the Wabash and Erie Canal. The Germans
had established churches and had taken their places in political, social and
By the 1890s, the Chicago Tribune typically characterized Fort Wayne as "a
most German town" whenever it reported the news here. Three daily
German-language newspapers were hawked in Fort Wayne; the mayor, Charles
Zollinger, was a German immigrant, as were most City Council members; and
German breweries such as the Berghoff offered some of the finest beer in the
Midwest. German was the language commonly used in church sermons and
classroom lessons, and it was the most often-heard tongue on the streets.
German clubs of every type and description, from the brotherhoods of veterans
of the Kaiser's army to the sports clubs and singing fraternities, were the
staple of Fort Wayne social life. There even was a Germania Park on the east
bank of the St. Joe River. (Today it is a housing development).
The German-American Bank (now Lincoln National Bank and Trust) was one of
the most prominent institutions in town. The Lincoln Tower, built in 1929-30
as Indiana's first skyscraper, was the very symbol of German immigration: The
designer, A.M. Strauss, and the builder, William Hagermann, were immigrants.
The president of the bank, Charles Buesching, was the son of immigrants.
But all this revelry in German heritage and culture began to unravel during
World War I, when Germany became the nation's enemy. U.S. government
propaganda against all that was German began to take its toll. Good citizens -
even the sheriff of Allen County - who had not finished the details of
becoming U.S. citizens found themselves having to register as "enemy aliens."
Eavesdroppers spied on German Lutheran and German Catholic sermons, and a
movement began to forbid the use of German language in the classrooms. The
German-language newspapers began to disappear. Bigots and super-patriots
harassed German families to give more than their neighbors did to the war's
fund drives - to prove their loyalty. Some Allen County residents were beaten
because of their heritage.
In the wake of all this, during the 1920s and 1930s, the German texture of
Fort Wayne changed, and the community gradually became increasingly like other
Indiana communities. The German-American Bank changed its name to the most
American thing it could think of - the Lincoln National Bank - and the English
language became more popular. By the outbreak of World War II, there was
little to distinguish Fort Wayne as a German community.
Still, the appearance of the prisoner-of-war camp - a German one - rankled
many. The camp's commander, Capt. Frank Bodenhorn, himself the descendant of
German immigrants, was a Fort Wayne man. Soon after the camp opened, he stated
in area newspapers that he understood that the prisoners were "not welcome
visitors in our midst," but that they were "a byproduct of war that can be
used to advantage."
Sure enough, these proud veterans of Rommel's corps performed a variety of
tasks around town, but never were they abused or degraded. They worked in
fields harvesting crops and in local industries. One Fort Wayne resident
remembers POWs being used to set pins in the Lions Club Bowling alley on
Calhoun Street, and they were a frequent sight shoveling snow on Fort Wayne
But they also were paid the competitive rate that other workers were paid;
their earnings were put into savings accounts, to be withdrawn at the end of
the war. With the money they were able to keep - about 80 cents an hour - they
could buy things in their own canteen. Unauthorized local women visiting the
camp after hours seems to have been an occasional problem.
The camp had its own library and game room. Movies were shown four nights a
week, and the prisoners could listen to WOWO at night on their private radios.
The pingpong tables left behind by the Railroad Battalions were a hit, but the
pool tables mystified the Germans.
Not everyone in Fort Wayne was pleased with these comfortable arrangements.
This was the time of the Battle of the Bulge, and the war continued in the air
and at sea at a deadly pace.
In newspapers, letters to the editor complained bitterly of the good
treatment given to the German prisoners. Especially irksome was the daily
allotment of two packs of cigarettes to prisoners, while rationing prevented
locals from buying more than one pack.
Among the prisoners, there was little discontent.
One escape attempt ended in a quick capture, and a riot that broke out
ended in the 100 or so culprits being shipped out to Texas. Only one man
committed suicide - for reasons unknown.
The prison camp guards were regular servicemen assigned to the task. After
a guard in Texas, newly returned from the Battle of the Bulge, went berserk
and killed a number of prisoners, psychiatric tests started being given to
guards regularly. A number of Fort Wayne guards were removed from duty.
Local reactions to the prisoners were varied and curious.
One prominent Fort Wayne insurance executive, Ed Rice, remembers as a 12-
or 13-year-old going with his friends out to the camp and shouting insults at
the prisoners - the thing to do in wartime, the youngsters thought - and then
taking the prisoners' nickels to the local store, buying them candy and pop,
and handing it through the barbed-wire fence to the prisoners.
Another Fort Wayne executive remembers riding with the sheriff on his
nightly rounds only to find a suspicious car parked next to a machine-gun
tower at the camp. Upon investigation, the sheriff was embarrassed to find the
guard and a local woman in a compromising position. After much begging not to
be turned in to his commander, the sheriff sternly admonished the woman to go
home and the soldier to get back to his duty.
Six months after the surrender of Germany, Camp Scott was closed, on Nov.
16, 1945. The prisoners were returned to Germany, and the camp was considered
as a prospective site for postwar housing for returning GIs, at a time when
housing was scarce.
In the first years after the war, the barracks and mess hall of the German
prisoner-of-war camp were transformed by the Housing Authority into a
temporary shelter. Residents there paid $22.50 per month, excluding water and
With the expansion of the city in the postwar years, housing opportunities
greatly improved, but the deplorable conditions of the temporary housing at
old Camp Scott continued until as late as 1977. Only then was the last of the
old prisoner-of-war housing torn down.
--Dec. 15 1990