Fort Oglethorpe (prisoner-of-war camp)

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Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia was a military facility near the town of Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, which housed some 4,000 enemy military personnel as prisoners of war and civilian detainees, during the World War I period, roughly 1917 to 1920.

Camp Description[edit]

"The War Prison Camp of Fort Oglethorpe consisted of a huge, somewhat hilly plot of land approximately a mile square. The entire area was surrounded by two barbed-wire fences, about ten feet high."[1] Tripod watch towers were located outside the barbed wire perimeter. Each tower was equipped with a search light, telephone and machine-gun.

The camp was divided into two component parts. Camp A, the "millionaire's camp," housed wealthy prisoners in private rooms who paid for their own food, and also retained cooks and servants recruited from the stewards and sailors of the German maritime fleet. Camp B consisted of some thirty barracks which housed the majority of the 4,000 prisoners. It was dominated by an immense mess-hall.

Prisoners, Military and Civilian[edit]

The military prisoners included the sailors from the German raiders SS Prinz Eitel Friedrich, SS Kronprinz Wilhelm and the vessel Appam. The civilian internees included businessmen denounced by their American commercial rivals, and individuals of German, Czech, Polish and other nationalities charged with a variety of offenses under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Prominent prisoners included Count Albrecht von Montgelas, Dr. Karl Muck, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Ernst Kunwald, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Professor Richard Benedict Goldschmidt, the biologist, Dr. Isaac Strauss, and Professor Zenneck.

Daily Life and Activities[edit]

Daily life was strictly regulated. The bugle sounded at 5:30 AM, roll call took place at 6:30, followed by breakfast. The bugle sounded again at twelve noon for mess while the period from 1PM to 3PM was declared a rest period. Another roll call followed at 5:30 and after dinner the prisoners were free to pursue their own activities.

The courses of the camp "University" included lectures in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, Malay as well as courses in biology (Professor Goldschmidt), physiology (Dr. Isaac Strauss), electronics (Professor Zenneck) and art (Count Montgelas). Musical events were a prominent part of camp life. On one memorable occasion, Dr. Karl Muck conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. ("Dr. Muck had sworn he would never conduct again in America, but we convinced him that Fort Oglethorpe was really Germany, and so he gave in").[2] Other activities included chess, pinochle, football, handball, reading, carpentry, walking, and writing letters and cards to family members, members of Congress and the Department of Justice.

Illnesses, Deaths and Escapes[edit]

The illnesses included tuberculosis, instances of insanity, and influenza. Tuberculosis patients were isolated in a tent and put on what was described as an unpalatable diet. The cases of insanity in a population of 4,000 included "dozens and dozens of men" who were transferred to St. Elizabeth's Asylum for the Insane in Washington. The postwar influenza pandemic was "perhaps the most ghastly of them all; day and night ambulances rushed through the camp; day and night patient after patient was transported to the hospital....More than half of the inmates became ill."[3] The total number of dead is not provided. The usual escape attempts took place but, as in most such cases, most of the escapees were recaptured. It appears that the one successful escape artist was one "Henckel" who made several unsuccessful attempts but at last succeeded, "and thus probably the only real spy the United States had interned at Oglethorpe disappeared for good."[4]

Legal Aspects of Imprisonment[edit]

The Swiss Embassy represented the German interests and the Swedish Embassy represented those of the Austrians. Some of the prisoners performed hard labor on the roads and in the quarry. They were ordered to sign a document that they were doing so of their own free will. Many refused to sign and were locked in a separate camp behind barbed wire. Protests to the Swiss Consul, Dr. Huebscher, were ineffectual; but the Swedish Count Rosen, who represented the Austrian prisoners, was able to reverse the decision, “and the prisoners were returned to the main camp and put back on full rations.” [5] Otherwise, the treatment of the prisoners was generally fair ("not that we were badly treated") but the prisoners suffered from two major irritants. Letters and cards were heavily censored and the prisoners suffered "from the unbearable uncertainty as to the duration of our detention."[6] However, 2,000 German prisoners and 1,600 civilian internees who opted for repatriation were returned to Germany and Europe in June or July 1919.[7]

The remaining prisoners, perhaps 400 or so, then began a letter writing campaign. "We wrote to the Senators and Congressmen representing the sections of the country we came from. We wrote to all of them, collectively and individually. We wrote to judges, lawyers and hundreds of times to the Department of Justice. Never once did we receive an answer from a Congressman. The Swedish and Swiss Legations stopped answering our letters. The Department of Justice invariably replied that it regretted exceedingly not to be able to release us 'in the immediate future.' How we came to loathe that phrase."[8]

Erich Posselt himself was interviewed by a representative of the Justice Department who accused him of being a passenger on various British vessels, including HMS New Hampshire, on which Lord Kitchener died, and thereby aiding and abetting German submarines, charges that Posselt characterized as idiotic. Posselt himself was released on parole on January 12, 1920.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Posselt, 314
  2. ^ Posselt, 317
  3. ^ Posselt, 321
  4. ^ Posselt, 323
  5. ^ T. St. John Gaffney, Breaking the Silence; England, Ireland, Wilson and the War (New York: Liveright, 1930) 268.
  6. ^ Posselt, 317
  7. ^ Posselt, 318
  8. ^ Posselt, 319

Sources[edit]