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World War II camp had impact on city

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 casualties.

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 economic life.

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 streets.

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 sewage).

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