Former German soldier recalls life at Crossville POW camp

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Most people do not know that there were prisoner-of-war camps in Tennessee during World War II. They were at Camp Forrest, near Tullahoma; Camp Campbell, near Clarksville; Camp Tyson, in Henry County; and Camp Crossville, in Cumberland County.

Best I can tell, there isn’t much left of any of these camps, except Crossville. The same land that used to be the Crossville POW camp is now the Clyde York 4-H Center. Thousands of kids go there every year to learn about archery, swimming and teamwork. I suspect most of them don’t know that the long, white building near the entrance used to be part of a prisoner-of-war hospital.

From left, Robert, Nita and Sean Boring, who collectively run the Military Memorial Museum, show a model of the POW camp created by many volunteers in Crossville. Photograph courtesy of Tennessee History for Kids

From left, Robert, Nita and Sean Boring, who collectively run the Military Memorial Museum, show a model of the POW camp created by many volunteers in Crossville. Photograph courtesy of Tennessee History for Kids

Since there were POW camps all over the United States and lots of military paperwork to document their operation, there is quite a bit of information about them in books and on the Internet. I didn’t find this chapter of Tennessee’s history all that interesting, however, until I read about Gerhard Hennes.

Hennes was a German officer who was captured in North Africa on May 13, 1943. Five months later, after short stays in a dozen different holding facilities, he entered the gates of Camp Crossville. He was imprisoned there for two years.

After World War II, Hennes would become an American citizen and in 2004 published “The Barbed Wire: POW in the USA.” In it he gives a detailed description of life at Camp Crossville.

To summarize, Hennes and his fellow prisoners were treated better than any prisoners of war I’ve ever heard of. They were given new uniforms, they were not interrogated and they were mostly left to the authority of their own German officers.

The best part of Camp Crossville, Hennes claims, was the food. “There were three square meals a day,” he wrote. “Breakfast included long-forgotten or newly cherished things like scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, fresh orange or V8 juice; all kinds of cereal; and hot cakes soaked in maple syrup.”

They were even paid. Since he was a lieutenant, Hennes was given $20 per month. The German prisoners used this money to buy beer, cigarettes, books and just about whatever they chose to order from the Sears catalog. They passed the time taking classes taught by other prisoners, participating in tennis and soccer leagues they organized, playing cards and drinking beer.

In 2004, Gerhard Hennes published a book about his time as a prisoner of war at Camp Crossville.

In 2004, Gerhard Hennes published a book about his time as a prisoner of war at Camp Crossville.

“Many evenings were filled with the noise of animated talk, of fists banging cards on the table and of singing, laughing and bawling,” he writes.

In what must have been one of the bizarre coincidences of World War II, Hennes was a prisoner at the same camp as his father, Friedrich Hennes. The elder Hennes was captured by Americans in Europe in the fall of 1944. Sent to a camp in Colorado, he asked for and was granted a transfer to Crossville. Too old to participate in the company sports leagues, Friedrich Hennes watched his son play. “Father came to be one of my most loyal — and least knowledgeable — supporters,” Hennes wrote. “He would not miss a soccer or tennis match.”

I was also surprised to learn from Hennes’ book and from Sean Boring, curator at the Military Memorial Museum in Crossville, that prisoners were routinely allowed to leave Camp Crossville. “With so many young men away, there was a big manpower shortage in the area,” Boring said. “There were German POWs working in factories and on farms, helping farmers bring in the crops.”

Boring and his parents have done much to preserve Cumberland County’s military history, which includes the prisoner-of-war camp. Within the small museum in Crossville, one can see weapons, uniforms, photographs, letters and other objects from the Civil War up through the present.

Among the more interesting objects I found in my recent visit were a bazooka reportedly used in the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” a Civil War tombstone rescued from a salvage heap and an Army map used in Vietnam.

A few years ago, local volunteers even created a large wooden model of Camp Crossville based on several sketches and maps of the facility. It is a popular attraction at the museum.

As I read Hennes’ account of being a POW, I began to wonder if there would be a turning point in his experience. It came in the spring of 1945. After Germany’s surrender, all the POWs were herded into a Crossville movie theater where they saw a film containing footage from the liberation of the Nazi-run concentration camps.

A massive brick chimney is the largest remaining structure from the Crossville POW camp. Photograph courtesy of Tennessee History for Kids

A massive brick chimney is the largest remaining structure from the Crossville POW camp. Photograph courtesy of Tennessee History for Kids

“We saw the emaciated bodies and empty eyes of the survivors,” he wrote. “We saw the piles of naked bodies, starved to death. We saw the mass graves. We saw the ovens where tens of thousands had been cremated. We saw and stared in silence, struggling but unable to believe what we Germans had done to Jews, gypsies, prisoners of war and many others deemed inferior or expendable.

“None of us in Crossville will ever forget that documentary.”

Hennes says he and his fellow soldiers and officers were shocked to learn about the Holocaust. He said that, for him, seeing that film was “the day when I turned in one profound transformation from being a hero to being a villain.”

It was also the day the treatment of German prisoners of war changed at Crossville — and at probably every prisoner-of-war camp in the United States. The quality and amount of food were reduced, and the treatment of the prisoners by the guards was changed. Some of this appears to have been a deliberate policy change on the part of the U.S. military. It may have also reflected the attitude of the prison guards, who were no doubt also moved by the images of the mass genocide.

Shortly after Thanksgiving 1945, Hennes and the other prisoners of war were sent by train to New York, then by ship to Europe. Hennes then spent two more months in a POW camp in Attichy, in France. There, the food was scarce, the conditions were overcrowded and treatment was rough.

Life as a POW ended for Hennes on Jan. 30, 1946. The war behind him, he moved back to the town where he grew up in Germany. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1953 and became a citizen five years later.

Hennes later became an administrator for the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey and spent many years providing disaster relief through an international organization called Church World Service.

“For most of my life, I have been an American citizen,” says Hennes, who is now 92 and living in Crossville. “I am very proud of that and thankful for the opportunities the United States gave me.”

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About Author

Bill Carey

Researcher and writer Bill Carey co-founded Tennessee History for Kids in November 2004. He worked as a reporter in Nashville through most of the 1990s, and he is the author of six books, among them Fortunes Fiddles and Fried Chicken: A Nashville Business History; Chancellors, Commodores and Coeds: A History of Vanderbilt University; and Leave No One Behind: Hurricane Katrina and the Rescue of Tulane Hospital. He is a native of Huntsville, Alabama, who spent five years as a flight officer in the U.S. Navy. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1987.

42 Comments

  1. Sandra Boardman on

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article on Gerard Hennes and his recollections about the POW camp in Crossville, Tennessee. My father, Capt. Fay Shaw served with the US Army and was stationed at Camp Crossville as the camp dentist during that time. We lived in Crossville and I went to school there for my first four years. I spent time with my father at the camp and remember it well. My father was friends with many of the POWS and even corresponded with one of them after the war. I have pictures of Camp Crossville and even some silver charms that the POWS made by melting coins. I would love to get in touch with Mr. Gerard and see if he remembers my father. I think he was the only dentist there . Maybe I could e-mail him if you have that address. Thank you, Sandra Boardman

    • Bill Carey

      I have recently tried to call Mr. Hennes and I can’t get him either. That could mean any number of things for a man who must be nearing 90 years old at this point.

      Thanks for reading the column!

      BilL Carey

      • Please get in touch with me. I have Gerhard’s address and phone number. He has a birthday next week and is still writing. But he has no email.

        On my invitation, Gerhard Hennes came to TTU, Cookeville, several times to give a talk. Those talks were always well attended.

        Heidemarie Weidner

        • Hello,

          my father was also a prisoner there, at the same time. I am sure they knew each other, both being officers captured in North Africa. My Dad (Georg Naumann) passed away in 1986, but I wonder if Mr. Hennes is still alive? it would make him 105 which is quite a biblical age. I am going to order his book today, and I am so thrilled to come across the website.

          • Barbara Nyiondi (nee Zollinger) on

            Hello,
            my father( Major Wilhelm Zollinger)was also a prisoner there,captured in North Africa in 1943.He taught young officers who hadn’t finished school mathematics and physics.He could buy things from a Sears catalogue and began to paint. to He also was shipped back to Europe and spent some awful months (winter 1945/46)in a French camp.Months later when he had found us in the Russian Zone and we had fled to the British Zone he got all his belongings -even the paintings about the camp-back,a big parcel sent by the Red Cross.I still keep the paintings in the paper they were sent in and all the books he had bought.I remember my father’s stories about the camp.They were similar to Gerhard Hennes’ stories.

  2. Lyn Ahern Henderson on

    I am the daughter of Stanley Ahern who was in the army and stationed at the Crossville Camp. He was the chaplain assistant and played the piano or organ there. I have found a newspaper article dated Nov 15, 1944 Prisoner Of War Camp, Crossville. The recreation hall at Prisoner of War Camp had a gala party and dance on Friday Nov. 10. Celebrating the 2nd. anniversay of the camp which opened Nov. 9 1942. The camp orchestra under the direction of Pfc. Stan Ahern furnished music. I also have a penciled sketch of the prison. On the backside is written: Paul Krenner (ISN. – 4WG22488 Prisoner of War. I would like to purchase this book. Thank you, and hope to learn more. Sincerely, Lyn Henderso

    • Twila Yednock on

      Lyn, this is Twila. I just read this article. I had read about a POW camp here in Crossville. I’m amazed to know your dad served here. We live 16 miles west of Crossville. It is one of two towns we are in regularly. Interesting world.

  3. Helene Davieds on

    My uncle Joseph Mayer of Baden-Baden was a Prisoner in this Camp after being transferred from Biloxi Louisiana ?
    He had nothing but nice things to say about the Camp. Is there a record I could get sommhow?

  4. Stuart Souders on

    My father in law, Herbert Kachel, was a POW for Over 2 years. He told me the same things that are written in Hennes’s book. He was also captured in Africa. He played the cello in a quartet in camp. He was given a pencilled drawing of his barrack drawn by Erich Meich?ner. Are there any living now who remember him?

    • my father was also a prisoner there. Just like your father in law he was captured in North Africa.
      I have a wonderful oil painting that someone painted of him at the camp. My Dad developed a great affinity for American, because of the humane treatment and kindness he experienced at the camp.
      They formed their own university there.
      I am forever grateful that my Dad did not fight at the eastern front where capture by Russians would have meant unbelievable hardship or death.

  5. Pingback: HISTORY: POW CAMP CROSSVILLE - Crossville News FirstCrossville News First

  6. James Holbrook on

    I have driven by the old POW camp for forty years. I went there in 4-H and it was also our secondary rally point should the National Guard Armory be compromised. We even trained there a few times for land navigation. I knew where towers were due to old concrete bases, etc.
    This story actually made that place come to life. I am so glad Mr. Hennes published a book. I am going to buy it.
    As many know, we use to call it “Jap Camp”, which I found out later that a Japanese never served there. It was for German and Italian officers.
    Thank you for this article.

  7. Very interesting, would love to see more published about this, and the local history of the camp, and those who were there!

  8. William McGrath on

    A great hide story of our area! So glad to learn of this. I look forward to visiting the museum and learning more. Thank you!!

  9. I met and interviewed Gerhard Hennes around 1999 for a story in the Crossville Chronicle when he made his first trip back to the Crossville 4-H/POW Camp. It was an incredible day and interview. The trip back and the tour of the camp and grounds inspired him to write his book. A fascinating story and person.

  10. Thank you for this article about the experiences of someone who experienced this part of history first hand. However, As a former camper and counselor at Clyde M. York, I can dispute your assumption that the campers don’t know the legacy of the camp. Local historical societies often give presentations, and the story especially survives in our “Herman the German” campfire ghost story told to every new group.

  11. I am Crossville born and raised and have never known the history behind the camp on “Jap Camp Road”! I will read the book mentioned and will offer it to the Old Hickory Branch Book Club, the largest Book Club in the Nashville Public Library system! I’m thrilled to learn of the preservation of related historic items and the museum in Crossville! My 95 year old father in law, Angus Gillis Jr. a rare positive living veteran of WWII has provided first hand testimony of events surrounding the Holocaust, the only event of his rich long life on which he can cast very little of his natural positive spin. Thank you for this wonderful information about MY hometown!

  12. Louise Roberts Choate on

    I lived just across the road from the camp. The Jim Roberts farm. I was a young girl about 3rd grade. I remember a guard there., He used to sit across the road from the farm. My dad worked there in the medical part. and one of the prisoners made him a Black Forrest cake. One morning as I was walking to the bus stop the men were playing ball and the ball came over the fence. They ask me to throw it back to them. I remember the guard lookouts they had one was right by the Roberts farm.

  13. Janice jackson on

    My father was a guard at this camp during the war. This is where he met my mother, she came by on her school bus every day while he was sitting up in the watch tower.
    I plan to order this book so I might connect with my father’s life in some small part. It would be wonderful to share this book with my parents but they are now both deceased.

  14. Is there a best place to buy a copy of this book? I grew up across the street from the (now) 4H Camp and was never fully aware of how rich its history is.

  15. Jeff Parsons on

    My grandfather was the fire Chief at the camp. Met Gerhard Hennes in Cookeville at signing for his book, along with my father and uncle.

  16. Tommy Lusk on

    My father was a guard at Camp Crossville. In his latter years he spoke often of his time there. Someone gave him a video documenting the camp. Don’t remember what happened to the tape. I wish I had taken him back to the site before his health failed. I look forward to reading the book. Thank you for your research.

  17. Greg Owen on

    Has anyone heard the legend that four German POWs escaped from the Crossville camp and made their up high up into the Appalachian Mountains, where they stumbled upon a farm at which a very elderly woman resided. She saw the young strangers slink around her outbuildings–apparently looking for food or a place to rest–and yelled from her front porch for the boys to “GIT.” Well, the POWs didn’t git, and a moment later the old woman reappeared on her front porch with a shotgun and proceeded to pepper them with birdshot. Amid all the commotion that ensued, some neighbor sent for the county sheriff, who collected up the prisoners and proceeded to interview the old woman. “How come you shot those German boys?” the sheriff asked. The old homesteader replied, “I didn’t know they were Germans; I thought they were Yankees.” I’d love to find the origin of the legend to add to my own WWII USA German POW camps research. Thanks in advance for your reply!

  18. friedel keene. marrocco-nerbel on

    am the niece of alfred nerbel, he never talked much of his time in the us as a pow but said he was grateful wold like to know if anyone knows anything about him, that was in the camps. we cam from mosbach baden, he worked for the courtsystem before the war ad spoke any languages

  19. Sarah Winfree on

    I spent many summers there while I was in 4-H. Our 4-H agents made sure that we learned the history of the camp. We were taught that it played a very important role in our nations history. While I was in 4-H we weren’t allowed to visit the hospital because it wasn’t restored but I always did everything I could to see inside of it. Very interesting place and a lot of good memories there. The chimney still stood from what I remember. We also had a song about Herman the German. It was a fun way to teach us about the history of the camp.

  20. I just ran across this wonderful story about the German POW camp in Crossville, Tennessee. My father, Georg Naumann was also a prisoner there. Just like Gerhard Hennes he was captured in Tunisia, North Africa by the British. The British turned the POW over to the Americans and my father and all prisoners were shipped by boat to Boston. From there he arrived by train late at night in Crossville. There were about 800 officers, both German and Italian along with enlisted men. The men used their free time for studies and sports. They founded a camp university as several officers had academic backgrounds. My father leaned to speak and write English there. One of the highlights of his stay there was the visit of the Archbishop of New York. He also told me that the prisoners were allowed to read newspapers and two of the papers received the New York Times and the Chattanooga Times. News not permitted to read were simply cut out of the pages. My parents and my husband and I visited the camp in September 1979 and an article appeared in the local paper along with a photograph of us with the City Treasurer Donna Ryan. I have a copy of the issue dated Thursday Sept 11, 1975. And also a photograph of a group of German Officers at the camp. Mr. Gerhard Hennes account of his experience at the camp mirrors my father’s exactly. My Dad passed away in 1986 but I am sure that Mr Hennes and my father knew each other. I can’t wait to read his book.

    • Bill Carey

      Barb, the book is expensive because it sold out a long time ago. The remaining copies are rare. I have contacted Mr. Hennes about reprinting it. He is (obviously) not a young man, and may not want to take on a new project at this point in his life. We’ll see! Bill Carey

  21. Bill. I ran across your article last night while researching about a book I saw yesterday that belonged to a prisoner there in Crossville, Tn. This book is printed in German. It appears to be poetry. The inside binding has been stamped with the words, “Army Service Forces, Fourth Service Command, Headquarters Prisoner of War Camp, Crossville, Tenn” and dated 7-10-45. It also says”PERSONAL PROPERTY OF (PW) (PP) and has the signed name of the prisoner and what looks like a prisoner number. The name of course is German and not printed, therefore hard for me to read. It also has ” Ownership verified by…..” And has the signature of a Sgt. This too is a signature and not easy for me to distinguish. Perhaps it could be determined who these two men were, and if possible, to find family members to pass this book on. I can send you a photo copy of the names if you think someone could make out the names. Perhaps it has some value to a collector?? The book is for sale at a local shop. Thanks.

  22. Sherrel Rogers Bandaria on

    My father, Harrison Rogers, of Roslin, Fentress County, employed the German prisoners to pick green beans. He would drive his truck to Crossville, some forty five minutes or so to pick them up. When they worked across from our home, they would eat their lunch under our walnut trees in our front yard. I was very young and would watch and especially listen to them speaking in German which I had never heard before. As I became more comfortable I would offer them apples and they would laugh and sort of tease me. There was a limit of five bushels they were allowed to pick. This was an order so they wouldn’t be overworked. They were paid by the pound, thirty pounds in a bushel. Fond memories.

  23. Amanda. York Beaty on

    Had loads of fun at the Clyde York Camp as a 4-H’er. We were either taken on hikes or wandered there on our own, but we toured some of the barracks that were still there. We had active imaginations and thought we found blood on the floor in one barrack. More interesting because it was mysterious. We knew it had been a POW camp.

  24. Bill Carey

    Dear Folks: I did make some calls a few weeks ago and to my amazement and happiness, Gerhard is still alive and well, though now living in Pennsylvania. However, he had a hard time understanding me and, when I asked him if he would consider doing another print run of his book, he said that at this stage of his life, he is not taking on new projects. Afterward I got his mailing address and wrote him a letter repeating my request and asking him to pass it on to his children, telling them that if they ever had interest in this that I would help. I suspect that’s all that I can do.

    • Hi Bill, I have in my possesion a hand written letter from Mr. Hennes he wrote home during his time in Camp Crossville. I would like to return this letter to Mr. Hennes, could you possibly contact me or help me to return te letter. Thank you.

      • Bill Carey

        Google the man’s name with the word “phone number” at the end. I did this a while back and a number came up and I tried it and it worked. But do understand that he is very old at this point; can’t hear all that well; and has a very strong German accent. It is not easy to communicate with him over the phone.

  25. Carol Atkins Buckner on

    I was raised within sight of the camp. My grandma had a ten yr. old girl, one married daughter with four kids, and three sons in the war. Grandpa had died in 1941. Grandma would walk out to the neighbors house in the evening to listen to the war news on their battery powered radio, and when she and my aunt would walk back home, the guard in the tower at the corner of Jap camp rd. and Taylor’s Chapel rd., would turn the big round light on , so she could see to get home. We also had a friend, Thomas Waltman that was a guard there and later the care taker of the 4-h camp. My aunt in the oldest one left of our clan that know a lot about the happenings there. I remember some and Waltman told us a lot of stories. Good memories.

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