German POWs: Boys, Old Men, and Volkssturm

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During World War II, hundreds of prisoners of war from both Germany and Italy passed through Hampton Roads. Many of them stayed in prison camps on the Peninsula or in Norfolk while others were shipped to prisons all across the country. Eventually some were given jobs as laborers such as working in saw mills or repairing railroad track. The Army Signal Corps documented these prisoners as they arrived and were processed. From this we get a sense of how the POWs were treated and what their daily lives were like.

Liberty ship Joseph Warren in quarantine at Newport News with 300 German POWs on board
Liberty ship Joseph Warren in quarantine at Newport News with 300 German POWs on board

Late in the war something interesting happens: the demographic of German POWs entering Hampton Roads changes. We see fewer men of fighting age and a increase in the number of men in their 40s and teenagers. The Americans noticed this and interpreted it as a sign that the quality of Germany’s fighting force was in decline. It was a sign the war was drawing to a close.

All the photos in this blog post are from late spring, 1945. Victory in Europe (V-E Day) was declared May 08, 1945.

Young and old

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An eighteen year old soldat (private) who has been wounded twice poses for a photo with a fifty-nine year old gefreiter (corporal) who had also served four years in World War I.

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A German-born American (left) interviews a 15 year old German soldier, his commanding officer is shown taking notes. The photo caption reads, “Home: Rengensberg, Germany, height: 5′, weight: 115 pounds. He had had four to five weeks’ training, in Anti-aircraft. He looked to be about 11 years old.”

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By the time these late arriving POWs reached Hampton Roads V-E Day had already passed. The notes read, “They looked rather seedy and included a number of boys 15 to 17 years of age as well as some older men. They were happy to hear the war was over.”

Chow line and paperwork

This series is of 300 POWs aboard the SS Joseph Warren. It also features many older men and teenagers.

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When prisoners of war arrived in Hampton Roads their ship spent some time in quarantine before they could debark.

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The prisoners’ meal included hash, beans, mashed potatoes, tomatoes, Vienna sausages, and tea.

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POWs wait in line to wash their own dishes. They also did their own laundry.

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An English speaking German POW explains to his men how to complete required identification forms.

Volkssturm

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These Volkssturm POWs are not trained soldiers but ordinary men forced into a militia and sent to the front lines with substandard weapons. According the notes their ages ranged from 37 to 44, they did not have ranks or serial numbers. To look at their faces they seem genuinely relieved to have been captured.

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