Camp Houlton: POWs in Maine

Updated 2 years ago

In June of 1944, the first prisoners arrived at Camp Houlton. Many of them were Germans who had been captured in Normandy on D-Day.”The 15, 16, 17-year-olds were boys just like ours who found themselves on the losing end of the war, and they knew that of course by the time we had gotten past D-Day,” said Leigh Cummings, President of the Houlton library and the town museum.They were brought to Houlton to work. Aroostook County farmers had planted a large potato crop that year to feed our troops and civilians.Cummings said, “There was a national interest in making sure that that food was harvested and was properly stored.”But the usual farm workers weren’t available.”The Germans did provide that necessary labor, so in that sense we were very fortunate that we had them because our boys and some of our girls were overseas,” said Cummings.There was some resentment toward these prisoners because our soldiers were fighting, and in some cases dying, at the hands of the German army and government. But for the most part, the prisoners and farmers had an understanding.According to the Geneva Convention, there were rules about how long the prisoners could spend in the fields. They did their work, then went back to the camp. At its peak, around 4,000 POWs worked at Camp Houlton.”A group of German POWs were picking potatoes and the guard was sound asleep. He had his rifle up against a tree and he was sound asleep. An army staff car came down the road and turned into the fields, so the Germans ran over and woke up the guard and passed him his rifle so that he wouldn’t get caught for sleeping on duty. So these people really didn’t pose any threat. There was no place for them to go,” said Cummings.On average, they were paid about 80 cents a day. There’s no denying they were prisoners, forced to work for their country’s enemy, but in some ways they had it good and they knew it.”As they wrote in their letters back to Germany, they felt somewhat guilty that they had so much and knowing their families back in Germany had far less,” said Cummings.When you hear stories about Camp Houlton now, many of them are about friendship. Houlton native Leland Ludwig is close friends with a man named Rudy Richter, a former POW. Richter was working for Texaco in Florida and wanted to visit Maine before he went back home. Ludwig’s father, who also worked for the company, took him in.Ludwig explained, “The people in New York City arranged for him, on his way home to Germany, to stop in Houlton at his request because this is where he was a POW.”Ludwig said Richter had no painful memories associated with the camp. In fact, he says he owes a lot to Houlton.”His arm was injured to the point where the doctor on the base wanted to amputate and they talked with our doctor in Houlton, and he saved his arm. He never forgot it.”Richter is one of many POWs who have come back and visited the site of Camp Houlton. Nowadays, there’s not much to see. Most of the buildings have been torn down over the years. In 2003, four German POWs helped commemorate the site with a stone marker, so everyone who passes by will know what it once was. Houlton welcomed them back with open arms.Cummings said, “That’s probably the most remarkable part of the story that there wasn’t more of a backlash against them. There was more of an understanding that they weren’t really responsible for the actions of their government, they were just boys like our boys.”


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