Saturday, December 22, 2012

Chicago's North Suburban WWII POW Camp: German Soldiers Held in Des Plaines

The Des Plaines POW camp ruins are
hidden by 65 years of silvan growth

In the popular mind today, World War II Prisoner of War camps conjure up images of the clever Col. Hogan outsmarting the bumbling Col. Klink in Hogan's Heroes or perhaps of a leather jacketed Steve McQueen sitting in the "cooler" bouncing his baseball against the wall in The Great Escape.

But from the "strange but true" file, there actually was a POW camp for German Prisoners of War in the suburban Chicago, Cook County Forest Preserves in Des Plaines, Illinois.

Only crumbling vestiges of it can be found today amid 65 years of silvan growth, but they're present, nevertheless, about 1/2 mile South of Euclid Rd., just East of the Des Plaines River.

From 1943 to 1946, 251 Wehrmacht soldiers captured by US forces in the North Africa and Italian campaigns were held in a crude camp in what was then called "Camp Pine."

Moss covers the foundation of
one of the POW camp barracks

It was one of 46 satellite POW camps administered from Ft. Sheridan in Highwood, which could not itself accommodate the growing number of captured German and Italian combatants.

It was placed at the site of what had been a US Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp for unemployed men during the great depression.

Constructed in 1934, the CCC Camp Pine was one of FDR's make work projects to help revive the economy. Paying able bodied men to rake leaves in a forest, didn't do anything to end the depression, but the industrial demands of World War II did and FDR's New Deal CCC experimental camp was abandoned in 1941.

(It isn't generally known today, but the CCC program was actually managed by the U.S. Army. A mere 3 years before Hitler's invasion of Poland and 5 years before the Jap sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the left-wing Democrat New Dealers were intent on further cutting the US military budget. General Douglas MacArthur, then the Army Chief of Staff, arranged for the Army to handle the CCC as a way of avoiding the furlough and loss of trained Army officers. His foresight would prove vital in the coming war years. -- see Mark Perry's excellent 2014 biography of General MacArthur, The Most Dangerous Man in America.)

But due to the overflow of POWs at Ft. Sheridan, Camp Pine Woods was brought back into use in 1943, and became home to the 251 POWs and about 30 US guards.

The young German men there lived in five crude barrack-styled buildings on the high ground along the Des Plaines River. The huts were each heated by a single wood burning stove and there were 8 outdoor privies to accommodate the 280 or so prisoners and guards there.

Rusting hand pump that
serviced the POW camp prisoners

The POWs, many of whom were simple farm boys from places like Bavaria and Swabia, were put to work cutting flowers for Pesche's greenhouse (which still exists on River Road) or picking vegetables at nearby truck farms.

Years later, many of the surviving POWs had fond reminiscences of their humane treatment there at the hands of the Americans.

Ever on the lookout for weird things in and around Chicago, intrepid Chicago Lampoon reporters, with the help of a friendly man whose Golden Retrievers were romping in the woods, found the ruins to old Camp Pine and took the photos that illustrate this article.

They're well off the crushed limestone jogging path in the Cook County Forest Preserve known today as "Camp Pine Woods." But if you stumble around amidst the blackthorn and brush about 1/2 mile South of the Euclid Rd. entrance on the high ground along the river, sooner or later, you'll find them.

When you go, be sure to bring some Beck's Beer (no watery domestic brews, please!)for the ghosts of those long gone German POWs and pour it on the ground there for them.

And, the strictures of Gem├╝tlichkeit, being what they are, be sure to swill a good quantity of the stuff yourself. These thirsty German ghosts surely wouldn't want to drink alone.


4 comments:

  1. Really was interested in your article about the POW Camp Pine. I have a Bavarian friend who was telling me his father was a POW in Chicago. I looked it up and found your article. He didn't know until now if the story was true or not. We would like to find out more details about the prisoners and maybe find his father's name on a roster of some kind. Do you have any suggestions on how to do this? Are there any photos of the camp as a POW camp or prior to it's closure in 1941?

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    Replies
    1. I don't know if there are any photos from the 41-45 era. As per details on how this was handled, I know from my days of working in Congress in Washington that the U.S. Army historians have detailed data on all American Army operations, so it would be a good bet to contact them in Washington RE: Fort Sheridan, Highwood, IL for info on this era.

      All these little forest preserve camps were satellites of Ft. Sheridan.

      Please check out my other site on German culture: www.chicagoschlager.blogspot.com

      Or just Google: Chicago Schlager Music Review

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  2. Camp Pine was later used as a Girl Scout overnight and Day Camp in the 1960s. The girls stayed in the bunk houses that were still there in good condition with bunk beds. It was a great camp with trails through the forest preserve and an open area for play and campfires. Wonderful memories for many girls.
    Kathy

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Kathy, we would have never known that. Isn't it interesting the multiplicity of uses that Camp Pine had over the years. Too bad it wasn't preserved as an important historical landmark site.

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