It was early in September 1945 at the end of the Second World War and Clifton Veirs was reaching day’s end on his large dairy farm in Montgomery County, Maryland, when he noticed one of his farmhands missing – vanished. Werner Koehler had somehow mysteriously slipped off into the adjacent woods without anyone suspecting or noticing. The police were called, and the FBI moved in for the search.
Normally, such a disappearance would not have been a big deal, but Koehler was no ordinary farmhand; he was a soldier in the German Army, now a prisoner of war in the U.S. In no time, he was on the loose, an escapee on the run, just miles from our nation’s capital – Washington, D.C.
The amazing story: Koehler was only one of thousands of German POWs being held in small prison camps in Montgomery County, and at nearby Fort Meade, now headquarters for the National Security Agency. There were nearly a half-a-million German soldiers, along with some Italian and Japanese prisoners, held in specially-designed POW camps sprinkled around the country in all 50 states.
To this day, few Americans have any idea there were so many enemy soldiers being kept in America – or very near their own hometown communities. These POWs were brought here out of necessity, with Great Britain and our other Allies unable to house the huge numbers of Germans who were surrendering in massive numbers, as war was reaching its close.
Once on American soil, many of these POWs, almost immediately, became an essential part of the allied war effort, because many of our farmers and manufacturers on the home front were struggling to keep up critical productions. Not surprisingly, they all were operating with severe manpower shortage created by millions of American men and women fighting abroad in two major battle fronts.
The American government had a creative solution – put the POWs to work. They became the indispensable hired help on these vital farms and factories across the country. Paid a small salary for their work, these German POWs helped keep food on this nation’s table, and supplies in the pipeline for our nation’s enormous war effort.
“Secret Workers of War” – tells the remarkable and relatively unknown story of the German POWs in America. An historic chapter from World War II being unveiled for the first-time, with human stories galore with implications for today’s fractured world.
For many soldiers, the prison camps were a welcome relief from the horrors of war, and they were treated well by our American military, now adhering to the rules of war and treatment of prisoners established by the Geneva Convention. But the irony was, often these German prisoners were not treated so well by their own countrymen, especially by Nazi officers inside the camps who accused the regular soldiers of betraying their country by somehow cooperating with the Americans. Too often, inside the prison camps, there were beatings, trials, and even murder – carried out secretly by these Nazi leaders.
But out on the American farms, it was a different world for the POWS, a chance to get away from the camps, and something useful to do while awaiting the war’s end. Almost all of the farmers treated the POWs well, sharing meals, and leaving them relatively free to do their daily farm chores. For only a handful, the relaxed, unrestricted atmosphere on the farms made it easy and convenient for any POW to escape unnoticed. Most escaping prisoners were quickly recaptured, but until recently the fate of Werner Koehler went unknown. Now “Secret Workers of War” will reveal what happened to him.
The warm, relaxed farm setting allowed for unexpected friendships to naturally develop between some farmers and the prisoners, lasting well beyond the war. Some POWs even turned to the farmers for financial aid, and other help as a last resort, after returning to their German homes and the ruins of war – only underscoring the value created by these new friendships.
For American agriculture and industry under the extra stresses of the Second World War, the work of the POWs became essential to meeting the demands on the home front, producing critical food supplies and products. While for the POWs, their daily work on the farms and factories became a welcome relief from an evil and most violent war and the camp’s monotony. A story of convenience is told through the eyes of both sides, in an exciting, new documentary, “Secret Workers of War,” available for release in early 2018.