Visitors to Fort Custer National Cemetery in Augusta, Mich., will notice a small section containing 26 gravestones engraved in the German language. Upon closer inspection one can read the names and ranks of what are clearly German soldiers who died during World War II.
One could reasonably ask, “Why are German soldiers buried in an American National Cemetery in Michigan?” And, “What does it have to do with Lenawee County?”
American forces took hundreds of thousands of German and Italian prisoners during World War II. Thousands were brought to the U.S. and placed in POW camps across the country. Between 6,000 and 7,000 POWs, mostly Nazis, were sent to Michigan.
Fort Custer was the main processing center, and the hub of a system of 32 POW camps in Michigan. POWs were processed and dispersed to one of the 32 satellite camps. About 500 came to Blissfield.
Most of the Blissfield prisoners had been captured in May, 1943, near the end of the African Campaign where they had been serving in Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
The demands of war had sapped local farms and industry of much of its labor force and agriculture and food processing were suffering. In addition, sugar was in short supply everywhere and sugar beets were at the center of Blissfield and surrounding area economies. Sugar beet, tomato and potato fields needed to be tended, harvested and processed.
German POWs from the Blissfield camp were used to fill the labor void and to help alleviate shortages. Most worked in the fields, but 20 worked in the Acme Preserve Company plants on Michigan and College Avenues in Adrian, with 10 more employed at the Van Camp milk plant on Beecher. Home Canning Co. employed 25 at its Blissfield plant and 40 at its Ida plant in Monroe County. Campbell Soup Company used about 300 to work in tomato fields around Blissfield. POWs were not a slave labor force. They worked voluntarily, and those who worked, were paid.
Other than the obvious lack of freedom, living conditions at the camp were not much different that the living conditions for American soldiers on bases across the United States. They were provided with tents, cots, blankets, showers and hot food. There were no commissioned officers in the Blissfield camp and the prisoners were permitted to govern themselves.
They elected a First Sergeant who maintained discipline and was the primary point of contact for the Americans. Nevertheless, they were Nazi soldiers and the First Sergeant ruled as one would expect a Nazi First Sergeant to rule. To be sure, there were escape attempts and insubordination to American authority. However, as one former POW put it, “It wasn’t the guards or the barbed wire that kept us here, it was the Atlantic Ocean.”
In spite of efforts to make the camp humane (many POWs even gained weight while in American custody) tragedy struck.
On the evening of Oct. 31, 1945, Pascal Martinez of Blissfield, owner of a farm where the prisoners had been harvesting sugar beets, was transporting 24 prisoners and guards back to the POW camp in the back of an open truck. After a day of working on the farm the prisoners were looking forward to a hot shower and a Halloween party. As the truck passed over the tracks at a railroad crossing on Silberhorn Road near the grain elevator — that is still there today — it was stuck by a speeding New York Central passenger train.
In an instant, 14 of the Germans were dead and three more, including one American guard, were dying.
The German prisoners who died were interred at Fort Custer alongside 10 others who died of natural causes during their incarceration as POWs. Lutheran, Catholic and a traditional German prayer service were conducted with caskets draped with flags of the pre-Nazi German Republic.
A few days after the funerals at Fort Custer, a memorial service was held in Blissfield to allow the German prisoners in the Blissfield camp to mourn their fallen comrades. A German prisoner, and American priest, and the Mayor of Blissfield spoke at the service.
Since 1953 German-American communities and veterans organizations have sponsored an annual memorial service to honor those who never returned home after the war.
Germany surrendered in May 1945. Many German prisoners who had worked on farms and factories alongside Americans developed personal connections and friendships. To many, returning to a war-ravaged Germany meant saying goodbye to those friends to face new challenges at home. Some wanted to remain, but the law required repatriation. Many went home just long enough to turn around a return to America. A few even settled in Blissfield.
And, one can reasonably ask, “Why were German POWs still here in October when the war had been over for five months?” But, that is a question that transcends Lenawee County.
Bob Wessel is the vice president of the Lenawee County Historical Society and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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