LEGACIES OF OUR LAND 2016
A monthly supplement to The Delmarva Farmer
Memories of POWs stationed on Delmarva treasured
BRIDGEVILLE, Del. — The letter, nearly 70 years old, typed on now-faded paper and sent from Germany’s post-war “British Zone,” is addressed to Mr. Smith and Sons, well-known purveyors of fruit and produce across Delmarva.
It begins in somewhat broken English: “I’m glad to give you some news from my country. So my thoughts are yet often with you in America.”
The man, Rudolf Neumann, writes thankfully about his time on the Delaware farm during the war. The pleasure of the work, particularly driving a tractor. The abundance of food and cigarettes. And the ability of all of those things to satisfy the soul.
“To-day I should like to smoke a good (Camel) or Chesterfield, but I’m sorry, times have changed,” he wrote.
He describes his journey home with other prisoners of war that started in November 1945. He arrived in “Camp Georgetown,” (most likely Delaware’s long-defunct Fort DuPont) and continued to Boston. He boarded a ship for France, where he was forced to work for about six months.
He eventually landed in Germany where he reunited with his family, which survived the war scrambling across Europe.
“I should be very glad to get news from you and therefore I beg to ask for (it),” he wrote, closing the letter. “I trust this letter will be a pleasure to you and do not think bad from me. Many heartily rememberings from my country.”
Nearly seven decades later, Charlie Smith gently cradles the letter — one of several from other soldiers — as he sits at the kitchen table in his home on the same fruit and produce farm. The correspondence was mailed to the farm and his father by former tenant workers — Nazi soldiers to be exact. The letters represents thousands of World War II POWs who were captured in various fronts as far away as Africa and housed on the Delmarva Peninsula.
Many worked the poultry and vegetable processing plants that dotted the Eastern Shore, said Ed Kee, Delaware’s agriculture secretary and a published agricultural history enthusiast. Poultry companies built camps for the soldiers in places such as Easton, Md., and Lewis, Del. Another was built in the Millsboro area.
But Smith’s farm was likely unique, Kee said, because the soldiers lived on the farm, a privilege the county agriculture agent likely granted to Smith’s father, C.W. Smith Jr., who owned the farm at the time. It’s not the only thing that separates T.S. Smith & Sons from other agricultural operations in the region more commonly focused on the grains and poultry industry. Regardless, the arrangement seems to have resulted in an emotional bond between the soldiers and the setting.
“These letters were so personal,” said Smith, who was born in 1953 shortly after the war. “These were men that were forced into the war by Hitler. They were just normal guys. Hard workers.”
Five mini-camps were built on T.S. Smith & Sons farm, and 10 to 40 soldiers were housed in each camp, Smith said. The POWs became vital to the farm because so much of the peninsula’s workforce was fighting the war abroad, he said.
A dilapidated chicken house the POWs constructed still remains. It includes a second-story quarters area for a family that would run the house. The farm was engaged in the poultry industry up to the 1990s, he said.
“There were several farm families that stayed in touch with their POWs,” Kee said. “They actually had reunions. They met with each other 20, 30, 40 years after the war. Relationships were established where the POW felt they were well-treated and liked by the family, and they stayed in touch for decades afterwards.”
The letters to Smith, however, seem to come from several different regions in Germany, possibly around the same time, suggesting maybe they’d been coordinated or the POWs were asked to the send them. Smith said he’s not sure, but the letters, whatever the motivation, reveal a warmth toward the region.
“I hope one day that I might see you again,” wrote Max Held, another POW. “We — my wife and I — … intend to pay a visit to your country to see a bit more of it than was possible as a POW; and besides I aim to show all the places (where) I have been to my wife.”
Another appears to ask the family for help.
“I did very hard work for you and I hope you understand me, when I ask you for a help a small parcel,” wrote Heinz Schroder. “I will send you for your trouble a excellent, handworked jewel-case. I made it by myself.”
POWs worked in a number of capacities all over the region during the war. Some repaired the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach while working for the city, for instance.
Though Smith wasn’t alive to see the POWs and the work done by them on the farm, their letters, he said, give him a unique perspective on the after-effects of war, even today. He considers the ongoing flight of Syrians and other Middle Easterners to points in Europe and their resettlement across the world, including the United States.
“They’re displaced from their home,” Smith said. “Innocent people, their lives are so affected by no doing of their own. I feel (my farm’s history) does make you more compassionate to them. It’s a tough situation.”
For POWs such as Neumann, life luckily continued in Germany — even if it was tougher to find cigarettes.
“I yet often think of the good and fine time I spent with you,” Neumann wrote. “Now I’m quite well and also got a job. However nourishing must be better and more. And further smoking, there is nothing to get. I must always remember the fine passed time.”
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