|The 6,000 German prisoners incarcerated at Camp Ashby in the Thalia area during World War II were an important factor in the local economy, especially agriculture. Many of the POWs filled jobs left vacant by young Tidewater men who were shipped overseas. Between 1944 and '46, Camp Ashby prisoners worked on Princess Anne County farms and in several fertilizer plants in the area. They also worked at lumber mills and on military work projects. At the peak, there were 1,788 POWs at Camp Ashby all out working in the community. Kenneth Whitehurst, who farms on Muddy Creek Road, used to use 10 to 12 POWs during harvest time to pick his vegetables, particularly corn. He remembers the prisoners as being industrious and polite. "They did't have any patience with Hitler," he said. "They were good workers. They were just as nice as they could be and they were mannerly." Whitehurst and other farmers drove to the camp, picked up prisoners for the day and returned them in the evening. They needed no special guards because POWs were screened and only those with ant-Nazi sentiments were sent out on work details. Prisoners were given 80-cents-a-day stipends redeemable at the camp canteen for merchandise. The remainder of their wages went to the government to help maintain the POW camps. Whitehurst remembers the plain wooden barracks being located about 300 yards off Virginia Beach Boulevard just east of what is now Willis Wayside, the furniture store. The original part of the store was used to house German officers and was returned to the state after the war for use as a tuberculosis sanitarium. Although the bare, dusty camp had no redeemable aesthetic features, it was dressed up a bit by the prisoners. They planted grass and flowers and build trellises and fences. Prisoners could attend church and also could use the library, where there were appropriately censored books and movies.] Some began painting and sculpting. They even produced their own newspaper, "Der Walbote." The short, mimeographed paper, printed in German, included world and camp news and puzzles. When the camp first opened in the early winter of 1944, security was not quite so loose. But the commander, Maj. Walter W. Evans, and his staff soon found that many German prisoners were not bad risks. In fact. throughout the whole history of the camp, only 18 prisoners tried to escape and all were found and returned to prison. During the camp's last six months, there were no escape attempts. As the war ended, the prisoners were "re-educated" before they were released to be sent home [to Europe]. William and Mary offered the re-education courses at Capt Ashby. Classes included English, American History and Principles of Democracy. The classes were so successful, Evans said, that many of the prisoners requested permission to stay in the United States or to return with their families later. [Or not the success of the classes was responsible for that but the hopeless situation at home] |
Mary Reid Barrow's writing in the "History Beat," The Beacon, Jun. 2, 1985, p. 6. CITY OF NORFOLK, LIBRARY DEPARTMENT
For the past week we have been trying to connect Mr. Willy Push with his past! Mr. Push lives in Wald Kraiburg, W. Germany, and is retired from Mobil Oil Corp. He was last in this country as a 17-year old German prisoner of war at Camp Ashby in Princess Anne County. The prisoners there were employed on county farms as day labor and received wages from the farmers. Mr. Push and his wife are planning to visit friends in North Carolina next week. They would like very much to visit the area where the camp was and to talk to some of the local residents who may be able to share memories with them. I have contacted the Beacon, since one of their reporters (Mary Reid Barrow) did a story on the camp several years ago and interviewed some local farmers at the time. I have also called two SMR patrons who live near the former camp and they in turn are making phone calls to round people up to talk to Mr. Pusch. I called the PAO at Ft. Story, who has given me additional names to call (including Mayor Heischober who was stationed here during the war). Have not organized a ticker tape parade (just kidding). Mr. Pusch is supposed to arrive 20 June and stay a few days. Don't yet know where they are staying. I sent his friend in Carolina a map and a list of nearby motels. Everyone I've talked to has been interested and helpful. Hope everything will fall into place next week.
Peggy A. Haile, June, 1988. NOSTALGIC: EX-POW VISITS OLD PRISON SITE VIRGINIA BEACH-
There's been a world of change since Willi Pusch last set foot on Princess Anne soil. Pusch, a German, walked the grounds of Virginia Beach's former World War II POW camp Tuesday for the first time as a free man. In 1946, Pusch wore prison garb and scrubbed barracks at the same site. Since Pusch was here as a prisoner, Germany rebuilt after Adolph Hitler's Nazi empire was crushed. Pusch's native East Prussia became Soviet territory. Pusch retired from an oil career outside Munich. And now the former POW Camp Ashby has been replaced by Willis Wayside, the Virginia Beach Central Library, Loehmann's Plaza and several housing developments. "I'm very disappointed. I had it in my memory," said the 61-year-old Pusch, who speaks with a heavy German accent. "It's very different." Pusch was looking forward to finding rural Princess Anne County replete with expansive farms and dense woodland. And, smack in the middle, he hoped to see Camp Ashby with its barbed-wire fences, guard posts and prisoner barracks. "I expected to see some of it," Pusch said. "But, none of it. That's too much." Pusch had such high hopes to relive a happy time in his life. Imprisonment at Camp Ashby was Pusch's only solace when both his native Germany and his family were torn by war. It was a war in which many Germans died fighting for a Nazi regime that they did not support. "I was the happiest man in the world here," Pusch, who along with his entire family was anti-Nazi. "It was like if you have cancer, then you recover. It was like being born again." The other options were not too appealing. They were to keep fighting or get shot or captured by Russian troops and live a tortured life in their camps. Some German soldiers surrendered to Americans just to get out of the war and away from the threat of death or Russian imprisonment, Pusch said. American POW camps were reputed throughout the war zone as country clubs, compared to some other camps. U. S. camps were clean, the men were well fed, and they were given jobs on farms, on military bases and in factories. They were given wages for their work. "The mission of Ashby, in addition to holding prisoners, was to bring these young men over here to help us in our war effort by putting them to work," said City Councilman Harold Heischober, who as an Army captain stationed at Fort Story used prisoner labor in his artillery unit. "Overall, they were model prisoners," he said. "They made the best of the situation. They were not tormented. They were treated as human beings." More than 6,000 German prisoners were incarcerated at Camp Ashby in its two years of operation from 1944 to 1946. At its peak there were 1,788 POWs. Pusch's visit provided an insider's view of life in the long-forgotten camp. He remembered being fed snacks of all-you-can-eat peanut butter and honey on white bread, a treat he savors to this day. "I would eat a whole loaf" he said. "All the kids would come and eat and eat and eat," Pusch added. "They tried to get strong because they would have to build up Germany again." The prisoners were permitted to publish a 16-page, monthly newspaper "Der Waldbote." The newspaper contained world and local news, U. S. politics, Camp Ashby happenings, lessons in basic English and puzzles. Pusch was given a photocopy of the newspaper by 25-year-old Josie Schaffer, who obtained it from the National Archives in Washington, D. C., to write a research paper on Camp Ashby for an Old Dominion University history class. Security was a bit lax. "We couldn't believe it." While Pusch was working at Fort Story laying underground cable, the guard assigned to his work unit would sleep under a tree. And while working in Norfolk at a fertilizer company, the guards would drop off the prisoners, go to town and pick the men up eight hours later. Camp Ashby prisoners were screened and only those with ant-Nazi sentiments were given work details. The Nazi sympathizers were sent to a camp in the Arizona desert. Pusch estimated that at Camp Ashby "3 to 4 percent, not more, were Nazis." Robert Preston Midgett, who was 16 when the prisoners worked on his father's dairy farm where Princess Anne Plaza now stands, recalls working side by side with the German POWs, filling silos with corn and building barns. "I did not think of them as the enemy," Midgett said. "We were running a dairy farm. We weren't thinking about politics. Labor was stretched pretty thin then with so many men at war. We were glad to have them." Kenneth Whitehurst, 67, hired about six prisoners during harvest to pick vegetables at his Muddy Creek Road farm. The last day the prisoners came to his farm, Whitehurst bought them each a carton of cigarettes to thank them. "They couldn't have been any nicer," he said. From all reports, the Americans and the Germans respected each other, despite the war. "It was very odd," Heischober said. "Maybe initially there might have been some ill feelings. But the hostility just wasn't there." The prisoners were paid 80 cents for each day they worked, and most worked every day except Sunday. The camp set aside a percentage of the money in a savings account for the prisoner. So when Pusch left Ashby after it closed in March 1946, the camp handed him $98 in savings. Prisoners could buy sodas for 5 cents, beers for 15 cents and cigarettes for 18 cents a pack. Movies were shown at the camp for a 15-cent admission fee. But one movie was shown for free, and all POWs were required to attend it. It was a film about the German concentration camps, which Pusch said most of the front-line soldiers knew nothing about. "I shut my eyes," Pusch said. "No, it couldn't be happening in Germany. I thought maybe Americans made the movie in Hollywood." When Pusch arrived in Virginia Beach in March 1945, he was 18. He was a paratrooper who fought on the beaches of Normandy on D-day, June 6, 1944. During the next six months, U. S. troops pushed the Germans inland to the German town of Aachen, where Pusch was captured in December. By the time Pusch arrived at Camp Ashby, the German war effort was almost lost. "After 1942, the war, we knew, we lost," Pusch said. "Then we were just fighting for survival." Pusch said he tried telling his fellow inmates, most of whom had been captured years earlier in Africa when Germany was winning the war, But they would not listen. "My own countrymen, they called me a communist," he said, adding that only the Nazi fanatics continued to deny the truth. During his imprisonment, Pusch's family did not know of his fate, and he did not know of theirs. "We thought each other was dead," Pusch said. In 1948, two years after his release, Pusch was reunited with his mother, father and two of his three brothers. One brother died in a Russian POW camp in Egypt. Pusch now lives in Wald Kraiburg in a suburban home. He retired last year from Mobil Oil Co., where he worked 30 years as drill master and crew chief on an oil rig. He married Anna Marie 30 years ago Tuesday, and the couple had two children, a boy and a girl. Since nearly the day he left Camp Ashby, Pusch talked about returning to it. In 1951, Pusch met Robert G. Yow, a former U. S. Army officer, at a family wedding in Germany. At the time, Yow was married to Pusch's cousin. That day, Pusch told Yow he wanted to return to Virginia. "It was the first thing he told me," said Yow, now retired and living in Greensboro, N. C. "The the subject always came up." "I was happy here," Pusch said from the Willis Wayside parking lot while he watched employees report for work. "I had to see it once again. But maybe I'm too late." (includes large picture of Pusch in parking lot in front of Willis Wayside.) THe Ledger-Star, Jun. 22, 1988, p. D1, D3. Ms. Peggy Haile told the editor that Pusch found some of the old barracks buildings still being used in the area (for other purposes). She mentioned that he drew a map of the camp showing many details. I asked where the map was now. She replied that she thought he drew it on a paper napkin. ROMMEL MEN IN PRISON CAMP HERE RETAIN THEIR ARROGANCE Might makes right - the philosophy inculcated in his Nazi legions by Hitler - seems to be so integral a part of the Nazi military character that even prisoners of war, reduced from their haughty "super men" plane, retain all of their arrogance, of their insufferable conceit. Believing that Americans are "soft" and "inferior," Nazi prisoners of war must be treated with firmness and military rectitude, according to Capt. J. A. Polhemus, AUS, commanding officer of Camp Ashby, where several hundred prisoners of war are now incarcerated. Any sign of normal human kindness is misunderstood, in most cases, as the Nazis seem to take full advantage of their captor's natural attitude toward their fellowmen. Camp on Beach Boulevard The prisoners at Camp Ashby, a new, raw camp in the woods at Thalia near the Virginia Beach boulevard, are all from Marshall Rommel's North African Army, including both air and ground forces. Among the toughest veterans of the war, they are fairly young men, but hard, and their arrogance rests on their shoulders like a faded cloak of royal purple with slightly grimy folds and tarnished splendor. Enlisted men and non-commissioned officers make up the complement at Ashby, which is designated as Prisoner of War Side-Camp 1326, Service Unit. All of the privates have to work, although in other camps where officers and non-coms are billeted the commissioned men and non-commissioned officers have a choice. Here there are several hundred men employed in ten fertilizer plants. Arrogance Surprising The Nazi's arrogance was a surprise to newsmen and photographers who visited the camp and three plants last week. At the first factory visited the Army's interpreter asked the prisoners' spokesman to get his men to pose for pictures. The Germans made it clear that this particular group did not want pictures taken, other groups showed no objection to posing. One strange fact brought to light during this visit was that the Nazi prisoners of war admire the New York Times more than any other American newspaper, and the majority of those who read papers always ask for this publication. The only explanation proffered was Captain Polhemus's suggestion that the German High Command's communiques are printed in full in the Times. At the second plant visited, some of the Germans turned their backs on the newsmen, with every line of their bodies registering their disdain. All of the prisoners of war glared balefully at the newsmen during the tour of the fertilizer plants. None smiled or showed any recognition of the fact that a large group of Army officers and men, and the newspaper people, were visiting the plant. We might as well have been parts of the walls. However, at Camp Ashby the attitude of those prisoners of war seemed entirely different. They glanced at us with curiosity, and several sang or whistled as they puttered about at odd jobs. They obeyed orders cheerfully, with most answering in English when the American guards spoke to them. Housed in regulation Army barracks, the "P.O.W.'s" maintain their own mess under the supervision of a United States non-com. For recreation they kick a ball around the compound on fine days, read, write letters and talk. Few recreation facilities are available now, as the camp was established less than three weeks ago. However, Captain Polhemus is planning to provide additional facilities. Many Attend Church Services One of the strangest items of information picked up during this tour was that religion plays an important part in the lives of many of the prisoners. Captain Polhemus said that an amazing number of these "tough" Nazis are Catholics and that attendance is good at both the Lutheran and Catholic services held each Sunday. Few if any Nazi officers are Catholics, the U. S. Army interpreter volunteered as they must sign a pledge foregoing church affiliations when they accept their commissions. The interpreter, German-born and educated, escaped from his homeland when the war broke out in Europe. As soon as he could manage it he came to the States and joined the Army. Sent overseas, he was captured and imprisoned for three months in his own country, in a concentration camp. The young man will not talk of his experiences, but his commanding officer said that the boy had a mighty rough time of it. In the light of his experiences, the interpreter is a valuable aid in handling Nazis brought to Camp Ashby. The Ledger-Star, April 25, 1944; included photo of prisoners) WAR PRISONERS WORKING HERE DO NOT TAKE CIVILIANS' PLACES German war prisoner, now at Camp Ashby on the Virginia Beach boulevard, are not being employed at local fertilizer plants at less than the prevailing wage scale, Capt. John Polhemus, camp commander said today. Nor are the taking jobs which otherwise might be filled by civilians. Ever since it was revealed that German prisoners of war were being used at the plants, speculation over their wages has been rife. In the first place, no prisoners may be employed without contracts for their employment first clearing through the War Manpower Commission. Before their use is authorized it must be ascertained that civilian labor is not available or that it will not be replaced by prisoners. The prisoners of war themselves receive 80 cents a day in credit, but their employers must pay the prevailing wage. The difference between the 80 cents a day they actually receive and the total amount earned at 55 cents an hour is paid the government. The difference helps defray the expense of maintaining prison camps. Thus, during the regular eight-hour day worked by the prisoners the actual amount earned by an individual would be $4.40. But the prisoner would receive only 80 cents with $3.60 going to the government. All work by non coms is done on a strictly volunteer basis. If a prisoner of war does not choose to work, he still received the standard 10 cents a day paid all prisoners. Sometimes, special construction work inside the camp is necessary. For this, the men may volunteer, receiving 80 cents per day for their labor. Prisoners of war workers at the A. W. Weaver plant recently visited by newspapermen were praised by a company foreman. One of the prisoners was a dark-haired, rosy-cheeked German and appeared very pleasant, He was 22 years old and had been in the Afrika Corps, a ground crewman with the Luftwaffe. He had been captured last May at Bizerte and was proud of having been in Rommel's army. His home was the heavily bombed Essen. The men ate the same food, sandwiches and drinks, eaten by their guards. Of course, the surroundings were not elaborate. The Ledger-Star, April 25, 1944; includes photo captioned "Super Men" at Work. LAST OF GERMAN PRISONERS DUE TO LEAVE CAMP ASHBY IN APRIL Camp Ashby, where more than 6,000 German prisoners of war have been incarcerated since the camp opened two years ago, will soon be closed. At present there are only 317 POWs in Ashby, and 136 are on orders to ship out within a few days. A group of about 90 others is scheduled to leave on April 10, and the remaining 90 will probably be moved to Fort Story. The entire attitude of the POWs has changed since the early days of the camp, according to Maj. Walter W. Evans, camp commander. At first most of the Germans were arrogant and took no interest in recreational and educational facilities offered to them. For about the past year, however, at least 60 percent of them have been taking advantage of opportunities to study English, the principles of democracy and American history; to attend church and prayer meetings; to read books in the library and play records there, and to improve the appearance of their compound. Peak Strength 1,788 From the first days of the camp, prisoners have been assigned to work details in lumber mills, fertilizer plants and on farms. At its peak the camp had 1,788 POWs at one time, with 300 more at the branch camp in Suffolk and 350 at Shelton. The majority of them worked on civilian or military projects. At present 34 prisoners are working on civilian jobs, mainly in lumber mills, and farms, and these are on 48-hour notice to leave. For the past year and one-half the man have not had to have special guards while at work, for the POWs were carefully screened and processed. Only those known to be anti-Nazi were sent out on these jobs. Major Evans considers the courses offered the men in various subjects, the carefully chosen motion pictures they were allowed to see, and the other intellectual diversions arranged for them, are the greatest factor in teaching these Germans an appreciation of the American way of life. Many prisoners request permission to stay in the states, and thousands have sought promises that they will be allowed to return here with their families later. Work of First Importance At first POW camp officials considered security first of all, but since the winter of 1944-45, the work done by the prisoners has been of primary importance., according to Major Evans. In the two years the camp has been in operation only 18 prisoners have sought to escape and all have been returned to prison. Major Evans has a fund of stories about these escapes but particularly like telling the one about a prisoner who was in the guardhouse, escaped, but instead of making his way across country, broke into the compound to rejoin his fellow Germans. No POWs have tried to escape in the past six months. Major Evans believes thoroughly in the new program offered POWs at Camp Eustis. There selected prisoners, all anti-Nazis, are given special instruction in the ways of democracy before being sent home. The major feels that this program, on top of the intellectual diversion program in other camps, will do more to spread the gospel of democracy in Germany than any other feature of POW treatment. Nazis Will Be Last to Leave The best-behaved prisoners are being sent back to Germany first, and the last to leave will be those still proud of Nazi Germany. Men who go to Fort Eustis for special work are returned to Germany as civilians, but the Nazis are being returned as prisoners of war and supervision is maintained over them in their native land. Camp Ashby, as a camp, is unattractive, bare and dusty. However, in the compound the prisoners have tried to make their lot easier by planting grass and flowers and building little trellises and fences. Some of the men took up painting and sculpture, others carved lovely boxes from wood. The prisoners are allowed to take home with them certain of the items they have made, and they seem to be especially proud of their handicraft, officials of the camp say. When the camp is officially closed, the buildings will probably be put up for sale, and the leased land will be returned to the former owners. It is expected that the officers' quarters will be returned by June to the state for operation as a tuberculosis hospital. Source, Norfolk paper, Mar. 28, 1946, p. 25; includes photo captioned "POW's Man Officers' Mess." "On summer days batches of them were taken for a plunge in the ocean, and many old-timers were heard to mutter mad things about such privileges." Barefootin' Around Virginia Beach...," The Beacon, Feb. 1, 1978. (From Virginia Beach Vibes: More People and Hogs)