Although the battles of World War II were fought on foreign shores, many of the soldiers who were captured in those battles ended up on U.S. soil… as all across the country, high school gyms, local fairgrounds and remote military bases were converted into POW camps. One of them was at an Army Airbase just outside Houlton, Maine, in the northeastern most tip of the United States.
The road to Houlton began in the harbor of Portland, Maine. Today, in historic "old port," seagulls soar just above the roof-tops, and early summer tourists meander along cobblestone streets, window shopping as they walk. Hans Krueger saw a much different sight in the summer of 1944 as he and his fellow POWs stepped off a boat and onto American soil for the first time. "When we marched through the town, there were lots of people standing on both sides of the street, and a lot of women were crying… so that struck me, they did not throw stones or insults, it was a very quiet affair."
A small, properly dressed man, with bright blue eyes framed by long wisps of white hair, Mr. Krueger was one of nearly 500,000 German and Italian prisoners who were transferred to the United States as the Normandy invasion force overwhelmed Axis positions, and captured troops filled European POW camps.
Most of the POWs who landed in Maine were sent hundreds of kilometers north to the camp at Houlton Army Airbase. From here, the men were put to work picking potatoes for local farmers and cutting lumber for the paper mill.
Karl Hagan was just a young farm boy of 15 when his family started using POW labor on their farm. "We used to have to go up to the airbase to pick 'em up," he recalls. "(We) used 'em for both picking beans and picking potatoes."
Even though they were prisoners, Mr. Hagen remembers that many of the young Germans who worked alongside him seemed to adjust easily to their new surroundings in America. "I think they got a drastic change of outlook when they hit this country. I think that they had been fed so much propaganda. A lot of them were awful thankful to be here [instead of] over in Germany at that time because things weren't going too well for them over there. I think they felt a lot safer and felt there were better cared for here then they would be back on the front lines in Germany."
The legacy of these POW's in Maine marks a brief yet important footnote in the history of warfare. It proved that the rules adopted by the Geneva Convention, which require decent treatment of captured soldiers, could be implemented and adhered to on a large scale. And that treatment helped lay the foundation for post-war German/American relations.
Today, 60 years after the war's end, Hans Krueger is back in Houlton. With him are three of his former comrades, Gerhardt Kleindt, Rudi Richter and Hans-Georg Augustin. The men have responded to an invitation from the town of Houlton to all surviving Houlton-POWs, to return and be recognized as friends and made honorary residents of the town. They chatted with townspeople, some of whom they remembered, and visited the site of the camp, where much had changed. Little remains of the once bustling Army airbase… a few crumbling foundations, pitted runways and some rickety hangers. Walking through the overgrown fields with four men who were behind barbed wired the last time they stood on this spot, one can't help but wonder "why come back?"
For these men, the answer is an easy one. "This was a part of my youth," Hans-Georg Augustin explains, "and I want to see it again." "Four years of our youth," Gerhardt Kleindt points out. Rudi Richter agrees, adding, "As young men, we thought we were doing a good thing to become a soldier, and we feel as though we have been misused." Looking around at the remains of the camp, Hans Krueger says, "This POW time has changed my life and the outlook of my life and how to see people and judge people. I am glad that I had this experience, which has transformed me."
The return of the POWs to Houlton was big news for this small town. Although potato farming is no longer the big business it once was, the seeds of friendship and understanding that were sown in those fields so many years ago, continue to bear fruit.