The Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Letchworth State Park provided a venue for various purposes during their short existence. The last of these was housing 200 German prisoners of war from 1944-1945.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, the last time we had taken foreign prisoners of war was during the War of 1812. The government was unprepared for the influx of Italian and German prisoners when Great Britain couldn’t house anymore in 1943. American military success in North Africa yielded large numbers of German POWs and made it imperative the U.S. transport POWs to U.S. soil.
The Geneva Convention of 1929 was the framework all nations were supposed to work within to treat POWs, but we know that the Axis powers disregarded the rules much of the time. However, the U.S. intended to set the example with humane treatment in hopes that our soldiers held in German POW camps would have better conditions. The camps were first established in the southern states, but eventually, POW camps were constructed in almost every state.
Fort Drum near Watertown, NY, was the first to receive POWs in New York State and then Fort Niagara early in 1943. Fort Niagara was the POW headquarters for Western New York. The prisoners arrived on the Liberty ships, which had transported soldiers to the Europe Theater, and had few passengers for the return voyage, making them the perfect solution. The number of prisoners constantly increased, and the need for more camps snowballed. Additional camps were designated in Attica, Geneseo, Hamlin Beach, Rochester, Medina, Oakfield, Stony Brook and Letchworth State Parks. In May 1944, the construction of a barbed-wire fence to enclose a compound around CCC Camp SP 49 located at the Lower Falls commenced. POWs began arriving in June. Two hundred German POWs were now temporary residents of the park.
The Letchworth Farmers’ and Canner’s Cooperative formed to manage the use of the Germans. With the scarcity of young men at the time, farmers and factories were without enough labor to produce the food desperately needed for the military and civilians. Rationing of food and other goods was a way of life during the war, making food production a high priority.
The largest farms which contracted with Birdseye-Snider to supply vegetables to its canneries received help first. Work details of five prisoners accompanied by one armed guard were organized to help harvest crops. Other crews were sent to the local canneries as laborers on the production lines. The system worked well, and as time went on, arrangements became quite casual in many cases. Most of the prisoners were quite content with their lot. They worked hard, but were treated well, had plenty to eat and recreation time.
One crew of POWs was gathered to work with the Army Corps of Engineers to build the camp in Geneseo in 1944. The camp was located on a slope west of SUNY Geneseo. After clearing the land, the prisoners constructed eleven prefabricated buildings. Nine were for barracks, one for a mess hall, and one was outside the compound to house military police.
When winter came, the men were busy with construction and maintenance projects provided by the park administration. The barracks in the park were small, housing 20-50 men according to one former German POW, who returned in the 1980s to see the park. Each barrack was set up in military-style with cots around the perimeter of an open room. A coal stove provided heat, there was electricity, and hot-and-cold running water. The Germans were able to organize recreation and entertainment for themselves, write letters, and read during their non-working hours. The food was ample and good—certainly better than what they would be eating on the battlefield and the camp had a translator. Sunday worship services were held for them too. The men received about 80 cents a day for their labor, paid in canteen coupons. This way, they could purchase cigarettes, candy, and other sundries with their wages.
Stony Brook State Park housed Italian POWs at its CCC camp. These men also worked in the canning factories and farms in and around Mt. Morris. It was reported that the Italians were elated to be in the U.S. There were stories of Italian soldiers immediately surrendering on the battlefield when they realized they were fighting Americans. They were weary of the fighting and couldn’t wait for a cruise ticket to the U.S.
The presence of enemy soldiers in the rural communities along the Genesee didn’t seem to rattle the residents. Each of the camps was isolated from the population, the newspapers barely mentioned their existence, and people accepted that laborers were necessary. These men were young, healthy, and willing to work. The girls in Geneseo seemed to enjoy flirting with the young men while they worked in town, and there were some incidents of escapes and even arrest of locals in aiding the escape of POWs.
In August 1944, three prisoners from the Letchworth camp managed to escape. The FBI initiated a manhunt, and citizens were instructed to be on the lookout for the escapees dressed in POW garb. Their descriptions were provided for the newspapers. In November 1944, 36-year-old Hans Geisser slipped away and was found at the CCC camp near Gibsonville the next day. This camp housed the young women who signed up to work in the canneries for short periods during WWII. Also, in November 1945, two women were arrested for aiding a POW’s escape. Margaret Wilson of Gainesville, mother of two children, and 19-year-old Alice Fisher of Perry were arrested and jailed in the Monroe County jail for transporting POWs out of the Geneseo camp. The ladies claimed innocence, insisting they were on a date. Quite a date! Unfortunately, I didn’t find the outcome of their charges, but likely they were dropped or the women received fines.
When the camps closed after the war, most of them were dismantled, which was the fate of Camp SP49. Little remains, if anything, of the camps along the Genesee. There are few records about the camps and fewer photos; the inspections and other official reports are with the National Archives. This fleeting encounter between enemy soldiers and the people of Western New York almost disappeared, but a few glimpses remain into a unique moment of Genesee Valley history.
The Troy Record, November 22, 1945
Buffalo Courier November 22, 1944
Buffalo Courier August 4, 1944
Letchworth State Park History.com
Genesee Valley Events 1668-1986 by Irene A. Beale
MAZUZAN, GEORGE T., and NANCY WALKER. “Restricted Areas: German Prisoner-of-War Camps in Western New York, 1944–1946.” <i>New York History</i> 59, no. 1 (1978): 54-72. Accessed September 3, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23169531.
Ashcroft, Jennie. WWII POW Camps in the United States, Fold3.com