BeeLines - August 10, 2017
By Marybelle Beigh, Westfield Town & Village Historian
Did You Know That There Was a German POW Camp in Westfield During WWII?
“I have a rather strange question for you,” the male voice commented after determining that he was speaking with the Westfield Historian. “I have a small cottage on my property, behind my house in Maple Springs, that I was told was moved here from the German Prisoner of War Camp in Westfield, about 1952 or 1953. In fact, I have documents verifying this from our local historian. Would you have any photos of the buildings from when they were there in Westfield?”
“Well, I have seen a photo of the POW camp in a Dibble’s Dabbles written by our previous historian, the late Billie Dibble,” I replied. I offered to try to find a copy, and we discussed more about the building at his place. His wife shared in the conversation, and insisted that the décor of the little place was definitely reflective of the early 1950s. Their understanding was that this had been a camp of German officers and was quite well appointed with a kitchen and other amenities.
This sounded a bit out of context for a POW camp, and so I suggested that perhaps those amenities had been installed in the building, AFTER it had been moved, to make it into a cottage. It was my understanding that the prisoners were only brought into the camp in Westfield on a seasonal basis to work in the fruit harvest on local farms or the fruit processing factories, since most of our local male workforce were serving in the armed forces in Europe or the Pacific war sites.
After gathering contact names and numbers, and a few other pieces of information about their local historian, and if they knew who had moved the building, research was begun, starting with locating the story in Dibble’s Dabbles. The Westfield Republican of May 30, 1985, did indeed have a photo of the camp, but it primarily showed the watch tower, and a field with buildings some distance away. The photo had been shared (loaned for the article and returned) by a local family who lived on Nichols Avenue near the camp.
The files at the Patterson Library contained a few brief articles from 1944 and 1945 Republicans, and a crumbling copy of the June 11, 1945, Dunkirk Evening Observer, describing the POW barracks at the Fairgrounds in Dunkirk, with photos and a description of a daily activities. A group of 35 newspapermen and women had been given a tour of the facilities, and the article was written by a George C. Luke. A December 1973 Westfield Republican article on microfilm had two more photos taken close to the camp showing the buildings and barbed wire-topped fence. The same family provided these photos, but efforts to locate the photos at this time (2017) were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, another historian project required researching photos from WWI and II, and this search located a well-preserved photo of the War Workers Barracks and Prison Camp Guards in front of their Headquarters and Orderly Room building. (Used with this story).
More research of the newspapers from the WWII years provided the following surprise. In the October 20, 1943 Westfield Republican, was an article explaining that 160 War prisoners were leaving for Geneva in Ontario County to harvest and process crops there, after being housed at Eason Hall to assist in our local processing plants. They were served meals in the basement of the Presbyterian Church while here.
The following years, the Republican of August 30, 1944, described the camp that had been constructed in Westfield to provide housing for the Prisoners of War. The Geneva Convention treaty after WWI governed the lodging, treatment, and employment of prisoners. Our local processors organized as the Westfield Food Commandos, Inc. built the camp on Nichols Ave. The article also explained that Civilians were not allowed near the POW camp, and “must not fraternize (talk or communicate in any way) with prisoners.”
Although these POWs were here to help during harvest season, it was emphasized that “every available man and woman in Westfield” would be needed to help with harvesting and processing. The POWs would “supplement and provide the necessary base crews to hand the heavy work in the processing plants.” Payment was handled by contracts between the Army and the processing plants. In 1944 about 300 prisoners and 50 guards were stationed here during September and October, and returned to the main POW facilities at Fort Niagara at the conclusion of the processing. The buildings of the camp were closed until the next season (1945).
The August 8, 1945, Westfield Republican again ran an article regarding the opening of the German POW camp, in two weeks, to be available along with the prisoners at the Dunkirk camp for use of farmers in harvesting crops. The article mentioned the POWs working in groups of 10.
My late mother, Frances (Dibble) (Blackburn) Anderson, kept diaries almost every year from 1933 to her death in 2014, and which are now housed at my home. Often, I read through them when wondering about a particular time of my life. What a surprise to discover two entries in her 1945 diary that make mention of the POW camp. The first mentions having Earl and Lucille Merchant at our farm for dinner on August 29, 1945. She writes, “He’s an M.P. at Prisoner Camp.” Then on October 3, 1945, Mother wrote, “The boys [ag class] and Don [Blackburn, my dad] kept a gang of 10 prisoners of war (German) busy for 5 hrs. this p.m.”
(A note regarding the emphasis for all available men and women to help with harvest and in the processing plants: In addition to my father being the Ag teacher at WHS, and running a 62-acre farm with tomatoes, grapes, peaches and many other crops, and dairy cows (butter and milk), where the Ag boys learned farming skills and practices, my mother also worked on the farm, as did her parents on their farm, and my mother and grandmother worked in the processing plants as well.)