Summers, Robbins: Interned WWII Germans had it easy at Camp Crossville

Summers, Robbins: Interned WWII Germans had it easy at Camp Crossville

July 1st, 2018 by Jerry Summers and Mickey Robbins in Opinion Columns

Camp Crossville operated from November 1942 to December 1945. (Contributed photo)

Camp Crossville operated from November 1942 to December...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Camp Crossville operated from November 1942 to December 1945. (Contributed photo)

Camp Crossville operated from November 1942 to December...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

Few Tennesseans know of the 11 prisoner of war camps scattered throughout the Volunteer State during World War II. Camp Forrest near Tullahoma, Camp Campbell near Nashville, Camp Tyson in Henry County, and Camp Crossville in Cumberland County were among the major units.

The site of the Crossville POW camp is now named for the grandson of one of America's greatest World War I military heroes, Alvin C. York. The Clyde York 4-H Center hosts thousands of children who go every year to learn archery, swimming, and teamwork. The long white building was the POW hospital.

Lt. Gerhard G. Hennes, a communications specialist in Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, was one of the POWs. The son of a minister in Coblence, he was 17 and working on a crew building bunkers and obstacles on the Siegfried Line along the French border when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. After participating in Rommel's siege of Tobruk and the battle at El Alamein, Hennes was captured when the field marshal surrendered to the British in Tunisia in May 1943. Crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, the POW ended up in Crossville, a barbed wire-enclosed compound on a wooded plateau in Tennessee.

Instead of bread and water, the prisoners enjoyed breaded pork chops, string beans, corn muffins and Jell-O. "We ate and drank, and played soccer and learned English, yet to the Fatherland, we were lost," he later wrote in a 128-page book, "The Barbed Wire: POW in the USA." Given $20 a month as a lieutenant, he and other prisoners could buy beer, cigarettes, books and other items from the commissary as well as the Sears catalog. They attended classes taught by fellow prisoners, participated in tennis and soccer leagues, played cards and drank beer.

Due to a manpower shortage in the area because of the war, many POWs worked in factories and farms. Prisoners were allowed to leave the camp unescorted. Few attempted to escape because of the favorable conditions. Some believed that Germany would win the war and objected to learning English, thinking that German would be the principal language after the Nazis prevailed.

Around Christmas 1944, Hennes received a post card from a POW camp in Trinidad, Colorado, and learned that his father, a World War I veteran and reserve officer, who had commanded an armored battalion on the Russian front and in Normandy, was transferring to Crossville. "His pervasive mix of faith in the Fatherland, its leader and God seems strange indeed for a man of my father's intelligence and education." News of the death of his brother on the Russian front shook Gerhard Hennes and his father.

On April 20, 1945, the prisoners at Crossville gathered to celebrate Adolf Hitler's 56th birthday. Days later the fuhrer was dead. On May 8, Germany surrendered. Shortly afterwards, the 1,300 German POWs were taken to a darkened movie house. They saw for the first time, mass graves, naked bodies stacked near crematoriums and the empty stares of emancipated survivors of Dachau and Auschwitz. Hennes, the holder of two Iron Crosses, wrote, "That day, when spring was at its most beautiful, was the day I turned from being a hero to being a villain." Prison authorities reduced the quality of food, paid labor and recreation privileges.

Following his release from Crossville, Hennes returned to a devastated Germany and then spent 18 years providing disaster relief to people in 80 countries through Church World Service, a U.S.-based relief, development and refugee assistance ministry. He also served as vice president for administration at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey. An American citizen since 1958, Hennes returned to reside at Fairfield Glade in Crossville.

The Military Memorial Museum at 20 S. Main St., Crossville, Tennessee, houses artifacts and memorabilia about Camp Crossville as well as other items of military history. A large wooden model of Camp Crossville based on sketches and maps of the facility stands out.

Robert Boring, curator of the museum, and his wife Nina, the director, commented: "Camp Crossville specialized in the internment of German officers including 1,500 from Field Marshal Erwin Rommels' North Afrika Korps. We also had 400 Italian officers at the camp but they were transferred to other locations because of the friction between them and the Germans as each side blamed the other for the defeat in the desert."

Jerry Summers is an attorney with Summers, Rodgers and Rufolo. Frank "Mickey" Robbins is an investment adviser with Patten and Patten. For more visit

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315