German War Prisoners
by Terry E. Wantz
Early in March of 1944 the Fremont City Commission and the Chamber of Commerce voted to endorse a proposal to establish a German War Prisoner Camp in the vicinity of Fremont. The plan had been previously presented to Gerber employees through departmental mass meetings and endorsement was given by both local unions.
The details were explained by Clarence Mullett, county agricultural agent, and by Frank Gerber, president, and other representatives of Gerber Products Company. It was pointed out that any loss of production now , through manpower shortage, would not only be a serious loss to the war effort, but would handicap post-war prosperity of the community. Failure to meet present trade demands would jeopardize post-war employment possibilities.
The plan, as explained, requires three major steps. First local acceptance and approval by the people of the community; second, certification of critical man-power shortage by the War Manpower Commission and third the approval by the Army. The basic regulations provide that war prisoners can only be used so long as local is not available.
The plan of using war prisoner in agricultural and canning operations was tried out experimentally in the fall of 1943 at several points in the southern part of the state. Its success was such that it was anticipated the demand for prisoner labor this season will far exceed the available supply and prompt action was necessary to secure an allotment for Fremont.
The use of war prisoner was particularly advantageous since they did not present any post-war complications. When no longer needed they were moved out of the area and did not remain in competition with local labor. The employer paid the army for the work performed. In turn, the prisoners were paid .80 cents a day in script to be used for purchases in their own camp canteen where they could buy cigarettes, razor blades, some clothing, candy, soft drinks and incidentals.
On 18th of March 1944, an official request for a German war prisoner camp near Fremont was filed with the War Manpower Commission at Muskegon by the Gerber Products Company.
On 16th of May 1944 the first group of German Prisoners arrived. There were 25 German prisoners and 12 Military Police in this first group to establish a prisonersí camp at a site in the rear of the Gerber Products Plant, under the commander of Captain Elger Rhinehardt, Commander of the Sixth Service Area. By the end of May there were 274 prisoners in camp here. Capt. Samuel C. Stricklund who was in command of the camp and two other officers, Lieut. Harry Sheridan, Prison compound commander and Lieut. William H. Carter, detachment commander were also stationed here.
On 8th of July three German prisoners escaped from the encampment. They were Johann Schumacher, Wilhelm Wenitzke and Kurt Lison. The men were the first to escape from the local camp since its establishment here. All three of the prisoners were captured in a barn two miles north of Hart a few days later. The men were returned and received the same disciplinary action for their escape that an army man who has gone A. W. O. L. would have received, Capt. Stricklund stated. About this time the prisoners built a swimming hole on Darling Creek to be used for swimming and bathing, later this was used by the children of Fremont for swimming lessons.
Row after row of neatly aligned tents first met the eye as one approached the prisoner camp behind Gerberís plant. In the first two months of this camp the prisoners had contributed more than 88,000 man hours of work on farms in this community and at the plant. The prison enclosure was separated from the soldiersí quarters by a high barbed wire fence. Armed guards were stationed in elevated look-out posts. The prisonersí tents were arranged in rows with wide spaces between them for better observation. By August of 1944 there were over 500 prisoners in this camp.
The prisoners meals were prepared by their own men in their own field kitchens. They preferred their food greasier than that served the U. S. soldiers. Potatoes and large over-sized friedcakes were their favorite foods. The prisoners received considerable mail from Germany and were allowed to write one letter and one post card each week. They even had a mascot, a black terrier pup for which the prisoners constructed a well made dog house within the enclosure.
Is September, another German prisoner, Fritz Schwindt, escaped and was found a few day later hiding in the Gerber Pea Viner Station in Dayton Township by T. C. Willson and Ernest M. Weisner of the Gerber Co. The men, acting immediately on a telephone call that a suspicious character had been walking down the road, found Schwindt in a dark corner among some empty crates. He offered no resistance and came out quietly with his hands above his head. The prisoner seemed surprised when told that he was only about two miles from the encampment.
In October of 1944 the prisoners built a large cement block building 112 feet by 160 feet to provide space for living quarters for the prisoners in the winter. They also added a 20 by 40 foot addition on the east side of the headquarters building to house the army personnel for the winter. The local camp was one of only four of all the camps in the state of Michigan to be used as a winter camp. At this time Capt. S. C. Stricklund left to be in charge of a military police unit in Detroit. He was succeeded here by Capt. Edgar. R. McClain.
In October of 1945 the camp closed. At that time there were 250 prisoners here. The use of this type of labor was necessary because the young men being in the armed forces caused a severe shortage of labor at the Gerber plant and among the area farmers. With the aid of the prisonersí labor it was possible to keep the Gerberís concernís production at a fairly high level thus preserving jobs for Fremont area residents..
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