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What’s the story behind a World War II prisoner of war camp in Wilmington?

Merton Vance

German prisoners of war were housed at three camps in Wilmington during World War II between February 1944 and April 1946.

In his book “A Sentimental Journey” about wartime Wilmington, local historian Wilbur D. Jones Jr. writes that the first group of 250 German prisoners arrived on Feb. 7, 1944. They were housed at a camp built at the intersection of Carolina Beach Road and Shipyard Boulevard, Wilmington [Map this].

The Germans were captured during the North Africa campaign in 1943.

By September 1944, the Carolina Beach Road camp was overcrowded and a second camp was opened in a four-block area around 8th and Ann streets, Wilmington [Map this], the site of what had been a Marine hospital in World War I.

By October 1944, about 500 German prisoners were at the camp and the site on Carolina Beach Road was closed down.

Prisoners were put to work in such places as sawmills, fertilizer plants and local farms.

A smaller contingent of prisoners was assigned to a third site, working in the officers mess and doing ground keeping at Bluethenthal Army Air Base, which is now Wilmington International Airport.

“The prisoners were a major attraction, to say the least, worth being included in those few ‘Sunday drives’ for which area residents had saved gas,” Jones wrote.

Jones quotes Margaret Sampson, who was a student at the time at Williston Primary School, across the street from the camp at the old Marine hospital.

Occasionally, she said, when the children were outside, teachers would allow them to speak to the prisoners behind the camp’s fence.

“We’d dash across the street and give them candy and gum and talk to them,” she told Jones. “A lot of times we couldn’t understand them, but the gestures were friendly.”

By the time Germany surrendered, there were 552 prisoners in Wilmington who continued to work in the area.

On April 12, 1946, the military began sending the Germans home. By the end of May 1946 they were all gone and the military turned the site at 8th and Ann streets over to the city.

Several local people who had German prisoners working on their farms stayed in touch with the former prisoners after the war.

Max Peth worked on John D. “Jack” McCarley III’s dairy farm off Carolina Beach Road, called Echo Farms, the site of a current housing subdivision by that name.

In a letter dated Jan. 23, 1948, Peth wrote to McCarley about tough times in post-war Germany and memories of Wilmington, in an excerpt included in “A Sentimental Journey.”

“Sometimes I remember quite sadly your excellent doughnuts and the very good milk at Echo Farm,” Peth wrote.“You certainly cannot imagine how conditions of life are in Germany.”

In a June 7, 1948 letter, McCarley wrote back to Peth:

“I often think of you boys that worked for me during the war and it makes me very happy when I hear from one of you and learn that you have arrived home safely. I only wish that the conditions were much better for you.”

User-contributed question by:
Todd Winters

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7 Responses to “ What’s the story behind a World War II prisoner of war camp in Wilmington?”

  1. On January 16, 2010 at 12:29 am Wayne Killian wrote:

    At the time the German POWs were in Wilmington, I was very young and (think) I remember seeing the POWs marching up or down Market St. on at least one occasion. Of course I have no idea in the world where they were going.
    When I saw the POWs marching we lived at 908 Market St.
    My brain tells me I was too young to remember, but somehow I don’t believe my brain.

  2. On January 16, 2010 at 3:04 pm Albert Motz wrote:

    Several years ago I did research for a book on camps such as these. There were many humorous anecdotes about the prisoners escaping and turning themselves back in. I don’t recall any stories like that about Wilmington.

    What was common to most all the camps was the division between the prisoners that were die hard Nazis and the majority that had never been too fond of Hitler but didn’t dare express their opinion until they were in camps over here. Also, when the prisoners were repatriated, there were a large number from each of the camps that asked to stay here, or returned, after finding their homes and families gone.

  3. On January 16, 2010 at 9:29 pm Al Murray Sr wrote:

    On the subject of prisoners.There was a dairy farm next
    door to our farm.It was Lewinburgs Dairy.There were
    POW’s working there during that time frame.they
    posed no threat to anyone at all.
    Thank you for bringing back some old memories.
    Take care and God Bless.
    Al and Virginia Murray Sr

  4. On January 17, 2010 at 6:02 pm David Carnell wrote:

    Cape Fear Museum has a working steam engine model built by a German prisoner at one of the camps.

  5. On February 14, 2010 at 4:56 pm David W. Lewis, Jr. wrote:

    I remember my father driving me past the camp on Shipyard Blvd. I was four-years-old at the time and looked on with amazement. Daddy told me I would read about those men someday. Also, my cousin Mort Neblett and I watched German prisoners clearing the land on which the Crest Theater was later built. We saw this from the porch of my grandfather’s house on Channel Dr. in Wrightsville Beach. The land which was later to become a putt-putt was only a vacant area and at times we could see white caps on the ocean. And our young imaginations led us to believe we could see an evil man named Hitler across the ocean.

  6. On March 23, 2010 at 3:26 am Anne Russell wrote:

    Wilmington’s Margaret Rogers wrote a wonderful play titled “Hiding from the Wolf” about a true incident concerning this German POW camp. Her play was performed at the Community Arts Center.

  7. On October 26, 2010 at 10:06 pm Mark Umscheid wrote:

    I’m not sure if it is true, but I’ve been informed by several educated people that WWII prisoners were also housed at the state prison camp that now exists near the Wilmington International Airport. The supposed building they were housed in is still standing, and is part of, and used by the NC Department Of Corrections as of this date.

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