Camp Grant and German prisoners

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Camp Grant was a military base located on the south side of Rockford. For some, the only knowledge they have of Camp Grant is that Colonel Sherman Potter once held the record for swallowing 22 goldfish (MASH season five, episode 17).

For the Rochelle area, Camp Grant provided labor for local farmers and industry. That labor came in the form of German prisoners. The camp opened in 1917 and served as a training base for World War I soldiers. The camp received notoriety in 1918 when the Spanish Flu ravaged the base. It is believed that 4,000 soldiers were infected and more than 1,000 perished. The event was so devastating that the camp commander, Colonel Hagadorn, committed suicide.

Camp Grant closed in 1923 and was later turned over to the Illinois National Guard. With the outbreak of World War II, the camp was re-activated in 1941. Camp records show that over 100,000 medical personnel were trained at Camp Grant. Camp Grant also housed 2,500 German prisoners of war.

The battle between Allied troops and Field Marshal Rommel’s “Deutsches Afrika Korps” at Tunis ended in surrender by the German troops. Many of these soldiers were sent to Camp Grant to be imprisoned for the duration of the war. I am sure that there is no such thing as a great place to be imprisoned, but for the Germans at Camp Grant, life was far from the terror faced by many American prisoners of war.

The Germans were allowed to work if they wanted to make money to purchase items at the camp’s PX (base store). Quaker Oats Company in Rockford was a union plant and the union voted to allow prisoners to work alongside its members. Sundstrand, Woodward Governor, Barber Colman and Greenlee Tool utilized German prisoners of war.

DeKalb, Belvidere, Sycamore, Hampshire, Shabbona, Kirkland and Lanark employed Camp Grant prisoners. In the Rochelle area, Del Monte was a major employer. You may wonder, why would American companies hire enemy soldiers? The answer is simple, American male workers were at war.

Food and supplies were urgently needed to support the war effort. Women and children entered the work force but more workers were needed. The German prisoners helped to fill the gap and provide much needed labor.

This is not to say that there were not some cultural clashes. Germans like their bread dark and hard, Americans like their bread white and soft. Americans like sweet corn on the cob. The German prisoners considered corn on the cob to be hog feed. Corn on the cob they came to enjoy, white bread not so much.

One major source of pride for Camp Grant is that there was never a prisoner escape. I am here to debate this claim. There was an escape and it happened in the Rochelle area. Reminiscent of an episode of “Hogan’s Heroes” here is the tale of Camp Grant’s Great Escape.

It was May 1944, when Werner Friedrich and Herbert Zeh, two German prisoners of war, had been working with about 500 other prisoners harvesting the asparagus crop. Friedrich and Zeh both had been captured in North Africa as part of Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

The two crafty prisoners turned their shirts inside out hiding the PW lettering. When the overseers were not watching, Friedrich and Zeh made their break. Now the two Germans had not thought out the differences between the United States and Europe, they only had a minimal mastery of the English language and it is a long way across America to get to any country friendly to Germany.

As the sun set and the mosquitos began to bite, the two weary warriors saw the error of their ways. They tapped on a window at the John Behrends farmhouse just southwest of Rochelle and surrendered.

Mr. And Mrs. Behrends accepted the surrender and notified Sheriff William Hungerford. The Sheriff collected the wayward soldiers and by 10:30 that evening the boys were safely back at Camp Grant.

When the war ended, Camp Grant closed for good. Today portions of the camp are included in the property owned by Rockford Airport and the Seth Atwood Park. A small museum still exists and is worth the trip if you are in the area.     

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.