Hosting the enemy: Our WWII POW camps

Daring escapes, unexpected romance and more true stories from members of Hitler’s army held in the Chicago area.

December 10, 2013

Edie Rubinowitz

(Photo of a POW burial at Fort Sheridan, courtesy of the Highland Park Historical society and former POW Robert Bechtold)

Orland Park resident and curious CPA Bill Healy describes himself as a World War II history buff, but he recalls a moment not long ago when his enthusiasm for the subject outstripped his knowledge of it. He was out with some friends after a game of golf, he says, and one of them brought up German prisoner of war camps in the suburbs. Bill was shocked! He'd never heard of these before, so he hit up Curious City with this question:

Where were German POW camps located around Chicago during World War II?

Bill’s question screamed for a visual treatment, so we put together this annotated map that shows the camps’ locations and a bit more about them. Below, we also provide some context to make sense of it.

But with Bill’s enthusiasm as our guide, we kept a lookout for interesting stories about life in and around the camps. We turned up several: A few were sad, a few were uplifting and a few had even grabbed headlines in decades past. Each is a reminder that Chicago’s connection to World War II didn’t just involve sending young men and women abroad; political and personal dramas unfolded at home, too.

German POW camp locations

The main camp was Fort Sheridan, with 1,300 POWs housed there from 1944 to 1945. Fort Sheridan also served as a sort of processing center and distributor of some 15,000 POWs, with prisoners being sent to smaller “branch camps” throughout the Midwest, a handful dotting Chicagoland.

Although nearly 425,000 POWs came to the United States during World War II, 370,000 of them were German. Many were captured while fighting in German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps.

We brought them to the U.S. for several reasons: First, it was too expensive provide food for prisoners held overseas. Also, camps were overcrowded in Europe, and our ally Great Britain asked for our help. Lastly, POWs could help fill the labor shortage in vital industries such as farming.

In the Chicago area, another few hundred were based in the Sweet Woods Forest Preserve near south suburban Thornton. They stayed in military-style barracks constructed during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Thornton site later housed a Girl Scout camp and even a high school.

Estimates suggest that between 75 and 250 POWs worked at Arlington Fields, south of Arlington Heights. Prisoners there were assigned to work at the United States Naval Air Station at Glenview. Also in Glenview, nearly 400 POWs were based at U.S. Camp Skokie in 1943. They worked in nearby orchards and farms, as well as the Naval Air Station. The facility was built by the Civil Conservation Corps and became a military police post before housing the German POWs. After the war ended, most of the facility was demolished, but one was preserved and housed a Girl Scout camp in the 1960s.

About 200 POWs were based in Camp Pine in Des Plaines at the corner of Euclid and River Road. Some of those POWS worked in the greenhouse of Pesche’s Flowers, which is still open today.

The stories: Why Rudolf Velte returned 50 years later

Rudolf Velte was a German POW who was held at Camp Pine during the end of World War II, from 1945 to 1946. He had fought in German Field Marshal General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps before he was taken prisoner by the French. He escaped. Conditions were abysmal, he said: “There was not much to eat and drink and very bad medical care, leading to bad illnesses.” Velte ended up turning himself in to English soldiers. From there the American army took over and brought him to the states.

Curious City’s Edie Rubinowitz went to Des Plaines learn more about this POW who picked carnations and made a special delivery more than fifty years later. She also discovered tapes that caught Velte recounting his story to (and being translated by) an American cousin, Art Bodenbender.

The stories: Reinhold Pabel’s escape to Uptown

(Press play for slideshow. Press paper icon to see captions) 

Not all German POWs had fond memories of their imprisonment in America. Reinhold Pabel’s experience was not as idyllic as Velte’s. Yes, Pabel did get to take courses he wanted to — he learned Persian, for example — but he said the Nazi and anti-Nazi tensions ran high in Camp Grant in Rockford, Ill. Prisoners were forced to pick sides and those who were anti-Nazi could face beatings by the Nazis.

Pabel was also not enamored with the U.S. government’s efforts to “de-Nazify” prisoners. The audio piece below tells the surprising story of how Pabel learned about the American way of life on his own. (Vocal reenactments courtesy of Peter Spies)

Edie Rubinowitz is a professor of journalism at Northeastern Illinois University and a former WBEZ news reporter. You can follow her on Twitter @edester.