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 Chattahistoricalassoc.org.