In June 1944 the first major contingent of German POWs arrived at Fort Niagara. Within a very short time a group of these prisoners would be working on the Newton Family Farm about a quarter mile east of the South Abbott Road intersection. The buildings that housed the Pea Vinery have been gone since about 1070, but in the last years of World War II, the site housed a bustling Pea Vinery where peas were brought in from the farm to be separated from the vines and shipped to a local canning company.
The one photo is a cover from a book that was sold to German POWs at Fort Niagara in 1945. Its title “Unteilbare Welt” in English is “Indivisible World” and its author is Wendell Willkie. It will be recalled that Willkie was the moderate isolationist Republican candidate for president in the 1940 elections. Apparently Willkie’s isolationist view was popular with the prisoners. However, how many copies were sold is not known. The second photo is an artist’s depiction of camp watchtowers at Fort Niagara and area sub-camps. There were no fences or watchtowers surrounding the Newton Road Pea Vinery.
According to local cattle farmer Chuck Newton, the Newton Farm property was rented to Olney Carpenter Canning Company of Lawtons, New York, who maintained the vinery machinery and processed the peas for shipment to their Lawtons canning center. Chuck also stated that nothing was wasted in the process as the processed vines were then used for cattle feed. Local children also got into the act, as they often would pick up vines and salvage the peas as they fell from trucks traveling through the Village of Hamburg.
During World War II, over 360,000 German and Austrian prisoners of war were interned in the United States. Once the war escalated, labor shortages began to occur on the farms and in factories in the U.S. and it was at that time that POW labor became increasingly important. Fort Niagara became the central command post for many POW camps scattered around New York State. Sub-camps were located in Medina, Oakfield, Hamlin Beach, Geneseo, Attica, Dunkirk, Letchworth, Rochester, Newark, Oswego and several other locations.
It’s not clear what camp Newton Road POWs came from, but it probably was Dunkirk, since most were trucked to the farm worksite not more than 30 miles away and returned to camp at night. The Dunkirk camp was established in June 1944. Several buildings were built to house the prisoners and they were surrounded by a fence erected by engineers from Fort Niagara. The commanding officer was First Lt. Robert Carnahan. The Food Processors of Fredonia. as the labor contractor, was responsible for building maintenance.
It usually was a county Producers and Processors Association that worked with the military to assign prisoners to local farms and food processing plants. Farmers were required to fill out a form that requested the farmer’s name, address, telephone number and asked for the time the prisoners would be picked up, by whom and what type of work was to be performed. Usually farmers applied for 10 prisoners, and although there were some issues, most were treated humanely.
Indeed, some Americans felt the POWs were being treated too well. Stories of free cigarettes and ice cream being given to the prisoners angered many Americans, and it was felt that the German POWs were treated far better than American prisoners held by the German government. Most prisoners were between the ages of 18 and 64 and many who were sympathetic to the allies had more to fear from the radical nationalist German prisoners than they did from their American captors.
For their work, the POWs were paid in two ways, either with coupons redeemable at the camp commissary or, most surprising to the internees, in a lump sum check received when they returned to their homeland. The Geneva Convention approved work contributed millions of dollars to the American World War II home front economy.
The interaction of POWs with ordinary workaday Americans gave both sides a new and much more positive appreciation of their common interests, hopes and fears about family, friends, and an uncertain world that was about to enter the Cold War. Indeed, one of the most effective teaching tools for democracy and the American way of life came from local farmers and their families who often treated the prisoners as part of their family.
At lunch time prisoners ate from lunches brought from camp, but were often invited into the farmer’s family kitchen to share meat and potatoes. To be sure there were guards who made sure POWS did not escape, but the letters of affection received from former POW farm workers years after the prisoners were repatriated, speak volumes about the treatment of the prisoners by American farm families.
Suzanne Simon Dietz’s book “Honor They Fathers and Mothers,” 2008,was used as a primary resource for this story. The book is a great resource for anyone looking for information on how the World War II years impacted Western New York.
The photo and some material was gleaned from the Internet and Chuck Newton also contributed to the story.
This column is written each week by Hamburg Town Historian Jim Baker.
Anyone wanting to submit photographs and/or materials can call the Town Historian Jim Baker at the Hamburg Town Hall on either Wednesday or Thursday between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at 649-6111 ext. 2400.
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