Passing the Time: Artwork by World War II German POWs

Curated by Henry Gartley, President, Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum, and Tilly Laskey, Curator, Maine Historical Society. Images from the collections of the Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum.

Exhibit navigation
Page 1: Introduction and POW interactions with Camp Houlton employees
Page 2: POWs and Aroostook County community members
Page 3: POW Profiles and Stories


German POWs picking potatoes with Wabanaki-made ash baskets in Houlton, circa 1945

German POWs picking potatoes with Wabanaki-made ash baskets in Houlton, circa 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

During World War II, the United States military transported captured German soldiers from Europe to America interning over 370,000 German Prisoners of War (POWs) in 500 camps throughout the United States. In Maine, Camp Houlton in Aroostook County processed and held 3500 German prisoners during July 1944 to May 1946. Houlton was the largest and lead POW internment camp in Maine, with branch facilities located in Augusta, Bangor, Indian Township, Presque Isle, Seboomook, and Spencer Lake.

In 1943, the Emergency Farm Labor Act created a US governmental program to supply labor for food production to help the war effort. Farmers paid for POW labor, and the prisoners earned wages in credit. POWs worked from California to Maine cutting pulpwood and harvesting agricultural crops. In Aroostook County, they planted and picked potatoes, beans, peas and sweet corn, taking the place of the American men who were fighting overseas.

Red Cross, prisoner, and local accounts indicated the Germans were treated well at Camp Houlton. The Geneva Convention stipulations for POWs included 97 articles relating to "work, recreation, food, health and sanitary requirements rights belonging to the prisoners, and all obligations of the captor to the prisoners." Part of the "recreation" in Houlton included a dedicated room for painting, carving, and handicrafts.

Many artworks created inside World War II POW, internment, and concentration camps detailed the horrors of war. Surviving paintings made by the POWs in Houlton largely memorialized their American experiences, reinforced a nostalgic German identity, and may have eased trauma and homesickness as they painted vistas of Europe. The paintings were a visual way to connect with Americans given the language barriers, and sometimes benefited prisoners economically, since they earned cash or traded goods for their artwork.


Camp Houlton Guards, Employees, and Prisoners

POW stockades with buildings at Camp Houlton Air Base, Houlton, ca. 1945

POW stockades with buildings at Camp Houlton Air Base, Houlton, ca. 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

Houlton Air Force base opened in October 1942. The US Government established the base before the entering into World War II to transport aircraft across the border into Canada. They transformed sections of the air base into Camp Houlton in 1944, to intern German prisoners of war. Watchtowers and barbed wire secured Camp Houlton, but few prisoners attempted escape.

The POW camp was dismantled after World War II. Some Houlton Air Base buildings still exist as of 2021, others were sold and moved offsite, some fell apart over time, but nothing was purposely destroyed.


German POW painting, Houlton, 1945

German POW painting, Houlton, 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

Walton Haase, Gunther Magdeburg, and Gerhard Nowitsky were German POWs at Camp Houlton. They gave this painting to John D. (Don) Willard, a camp guard, and Marion Corneil on August 31, 1945 to wish them a "Happy Wedding" upon their marriage.

Catherine Bell, a farmer whose family hired POW workers to pick potatoes compared the situation to the popular 1960s sitcom, "Like Hogan's Heroes, but on the other side of the fence." However, the German POWs were Nazi soldiers. Some were hostile, and for security reasons others didn't leave the camp or work on farms. Translated letters indicate some prisoners at Camp Houlton were unhappy and still loyal to their Führer, Adolf Hitler.


Interior of the Officers Club at the Houlton Air base, 1943

Interior of the Officers Club at the Houlton Air base, 1943

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

In 1943, a year prior to POW arrival, officers and military personnel relaxed with drinks in the Officers Club at the Houlton Air Base. Friendships between camp guards and prisoners were against regulations, but because of the amount of time spent together, relationships formed. Camp guards were especially moved by the younger POWs, some only 15 years of age.


Camp Houlton Post Exchange staff, 1945

Camp Houlton Post Exchange staff, 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

German POWs who worked at Camp Houlton or labored on farms were paid a dollar a day in scrip—a form of credit—that they used at the base store called the post exchange (PX). They traded for toiletries, tobacco, chocolate, and even beer. Perhaps this PX supplied the artists with materials for these paintings.

The University of Maine provided books and distance learning courses for some POWs at Camp Houlton, part of what camp captain Water Cronin called a "re-orientation program." Starting in December 1944, POWs started publishing a camp newsletter, Der Wachter. In March 1945, the issue focused on classes available in English, Latin, French, German, Mathematics, Structural Engineering, Drawing and Painting, Music, and other courses. The newsletters were heavily illustrated with drawings and cartoons.

POWs who worked in the post exchange stood in the back row of this photograph. Seated on chairs are American civilian employees and US Army soldiers. The only people identified in the photograph are Lt. Walter A. Nelson, sitting cross-legged in front; Paris Brown (McPherson), at left, and Ruth Palmer, seventh from left.


German prisoner of war painting, Camp Houlton, ca. 1945

German prisoner of war painting, Camp Houlton, ca. 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

The German Army recruited young boys into war service during World War II. In a 2003 visit to Maine, Gerhardt Kleindt, Rudi Richter, and Hans-Georg Augustin talked about being drafted into the army in 1943 and 1944 when they were just 15 and 16 years old. Richter noted, "We had no choice but to join the army, not to join meant being shot."

Once in Houlton, the teens—now prisoners of war—had no idea what the Americans had in store for them. When the POWs were handed shovels and ordered to dig a cesspool, one of them began to cry. When the guards asked why, he replied that he thought they were being ordered to dig their own graves.

This image of a birch tree, cattails, and a body of water was likely inspired by Aroostook County. The artist Yearicks's choice to crop the top of the tree and create an unbalanced painting was a method used by modern artists, particularly photographers.


German barber, Camp Houlton, 1945

German barber, Camp Houlton, 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

The Geneva Convention permitted German POWs to work, provided they were compensated the "prevailing local wage." This POW was a barber at Camp Houlton, shown cutting the hair of a US Army soldier.

Because the Germans "looked like our boys" they were more readily accepted by locals than Italian and Japanese soldiers interned in other POW camps across America. Prisoners in Houlton worked with scissors, axes, and shovels that might easily have turned into weapons. However, multiple stories in Houlton reveal that some prisoners had relative freedom and access to tools while working on Aroostook County family run farms.

POWs and Aroostook County community members

Camp Houlton POWs

Camp Houlton POWs

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

After his internment at Camp Houlton, Vohn Micka returned to Germany, finding it devastated and poverty-stricken after the war. With an infant and wife to support, he wrote to the farmers he knew in Aroostook County during his imprisonment, who sent Micka supplies, food, and baby formula.


Lois Porter, Houlton, ca. 1945

Lois Porter, Houlton, ca. 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

One of the POWs who picked potatoes at the farm of Mary Ellen (Rusty) and Herman Porter offered to paint a portrait of the Porters' daughter, Lois, who was about age eight here.

Many of the POWs were fathers and brothers, and missed being around children. Farmer Charles Long brought his four-year-old son to visit the POWs, and his wife Edith said she sat on her farm porch with her baby, so the POWs working the fields could see the child—evidence that farmers did not view the POWs as a threat.


Prisoners of War in the farm field, Houlton, 1945

Prisoners of War in the farm field, Houlton, 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

In 2002, 82-year-old Catherine "Kay" Bell, who had POW prisoners on her farm, recounted, "My brothers were over there fighting. We just hoped they were being treated as well as we were treating these boys."
Before the POWs arrived at Camp Houlton, Catherine Bell’s brother, Louis Bell, who served as a tail gunner on a B-17, was listed as missing in action over Rostock, Germany. His body was not recovered. Even though the POWs were Germans soldiers—Nazis who their sons and brothers were fighting overseas—Houlton farmers viewed the POWs as good laborers rather than enemy soldiers. Sixty years later, former POW Rudi Richter accompanied Catherine Bell to the Baltic Sea in Germany, the site of her brother Louis's last known location.

In 2003, Bell, who worked as the Curator at the Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum, helped welcome back German POWs from Camp Houlton to the town. Former POW Heinz Feldt visited ACHAM in 2008 while traveling, and family members—including children and grandchildren— of the former POWs have made a point of visiting Houlton over the years.


POW farm workers, Houlton, 1944

POW farm workers, Houlton, 1944

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

In 2003, former Camp Houlton POWs Hans Krueger, Gerhardt Kleindt, Rudi Richter, and Hans-Georg Augustin returned to Houlton in response to an invitation from the town to all surviving Houlton POWs to return and be recognized as friends, and made honorary residents of the town.

The men, who were in their teens when they first arrived at Camp Houlton, saw the experience as life changing—ironically in positive ways. Hans-Georg Augustin stated, "This was a part of my youth, and I want to see it again."

During his 2003 visit, Hans Krueger said,

This POW time has changed my life and the outlook of my life and how to see people and judge people. I am glad that I had this experience, which has transformed me.


German prisoners picking potatoes, Houlton, 1945

German prisoners picking potatoes, Houlton, 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

A slogan of World War II was "Food Will Win the War and Write the Peace." Maine's Extension Service administered the National Farm Labor Program in Maine and placed workers on farms—including the German POWs—to fill the gap caused by Americans serving overseas. Even after the end of World War II in 1945, the lack of harvest laborers was dire. The Extension Service's 1945 report noted placing local day haul workers on farms, along with laborers from,

Maine, Quebec, Newfoundland, Jamaica, and Kentucky; and more than two thousand German prisoners of war from Europe's battlefields. Total number of individuals placed was 16,323, and the total number of placements was 41,864. Practically no crops were lost for lack of labor at harvest time.

The same report tallied POW laborers picked 4,471,059 bushels of potatoes, or about one-tenth of the total crop in 1945.


Painting by prisoner of war, Camp Houlton, 1945

Painting by prisoner of war, Camp Houlton, 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum


German POW Artur Oberosler painted this vista of the Tyrolian Alps—complete with edelweiss flowers—during his internment at Camp Houlton. On the back he inscribed a note stating in German that this was an original painting, and that he was a portrait painter.

Communication between Americans and POWs could be frustrating since few prisoners spoke English and fewer Americans spoke German. Some prisoners spoke French, and Houlton locals—many descendants of the Acadians who settled in Northern Maine in the 1600s—helped to translate. In 2021, Betsy Mercer remembered,

My dad who spoke French was asked to talk with some of the German prisoners who spoke French. I remember him telling us about it. I also remember Dad telling us how young some of the German prisoners were, all very nice guys who wanted stamps for letters home, cigarettes and chocolate.

Sometimes POWs secretly passed coded information in their artwork, although there is no evidence of this happening in Houlton.


POW Profiles and Stories

Gerhard Kleindt, Houlton, ca. 1944

Gerhard Kleindt, Houlton, ca. 1944

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

Gerhard Kleindt was an 18-year-old draftee in the German Army when his military vehicle overturned during a gunfight on a Normandy beach in 1944. The Canadian Services captured him after the Germans were overrun.

Kleindt was a prisoner of war at Camp Houlton from July 1944 to March 1946 where he worked first as a cook for the guards, and later on a potato farm. He took advantage of educational programs offered at the camp, which he said prepared him for life after the war. Looking back, Kleindt reflected,

The best years of my life were spent in a prison camp behind barbed wire. It was the consequence of a senseless war that Germany had started, for which we were shamelessly misused.

Kleindt was released in 1946 and returned to a divided country. His home in Dresden was part of Eastern Germany, and Kleindt was unable to travel outside of East Germany until 1989. In 2003, Gerhard Kleindt returned to visit Houlton along with other former POWs, when Houlton declared all former POWs honorary citizens.


Painting by German Prisoner of War, Houlton, 1945

Painting by German Prisoner of War, Houlton, 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

Most of the surviving paintings made by POWs from Camp Houlton are nostalgic, and feature German subjects. This piece might feature an Aroostook County subject, since the sled includes snowshoes—a Indigenous invention from what is now called North America. Helmut Klusson, who painted this scene, was among the first prisoners of war to arrive at the Houlton POW camp in 1944 when he was 22-years-old. During the winter, prisoners worked in the woods cutting pulpwood for mills.

Prisoners in other camps around the world also created artwork during their captivity—but often these images were painful, showing the horrors of war, and were not shared as readily as the paintings at Camp Houlton. Some Americans thought the POWs were being treated too well. Their housing, diet, wages, and educational resources were above those of neighboring communities and Wabanaki Nations. But US military leaders felt that letters sent by POWs to Germany detailing their good treatment might lead to Germans surrendering, and leaving the war.


Painting of Mont Saint Michel, ca. 1945

Painting of Mont Saint Michel, ca. 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

Franz Bacher painted this scene of Mont-Saint-Michel, a tidal island town in Normandy, France for the commander of Camp Houlton during Bacher's internment there.

Of the thousands of German soldiers who came to the United States as prisoners of war, there were very few who tried to escape. With uniforms marked "PW" and heavy German accents, they were easily spotted. This did not deter Franz Bacher, who had been a political prisoner in Nazi Germany before being sent to North Africa to fight. With some American money and a civilian coat, on which he painted "PW" in watercolor—which easily washed off—he escaped from the Camp Starks, New Hampshire POW camp on August 1, 1944. Prison officials found a note on his bed saying,

I am going to escape today. The reason I am doing this is I live for my art. If I continue to cut wood, my hands will become so mutilated that I will be unable to paint. If I can’t paint, I can do nothing.

In New York City, Bacher lived and slept in Central Park until he earned enough money from selling artwork to rent an apartment in the East Village. Bacher's subjects included scenes of New York, or vistas of Europe and his home in Austria.

After about a month, a US Army corporal from Starks recognized Bacher in Pennsylvania Station. Because Bacher was known as a painter, the authorities notified art stores. A clerk in Union Square spotted Bacher, who was captured by the FBI and turned over to the Army. Though the records are spotty, Bacher likely was interned at camp Houlton just prior to being repatriated to Germany.

Following his return to Europe after WWII, Franz Bacher went on to have a long and successful career as an artist.


Seaside vista, Houlton, ca. 1945

Seaside vista, Houlton, ca. 1945

Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

German POW artwork from World War II American internment camps has not been studied or well documented, largely because most of the creators were self-taught, artists were often unidentified, and the art was created on perishable materials. While the work varies in execution, the artworks are important historical records of POW experiences in Maine. They mark the prisoners' experiences as soldiers, and their loss of human dignity as they were captured and placed in internment camps.

Franz Bacher was an Austrian political prisoner in Germany before the Nazis sent him to fight in North Africa. He was a leftist who spoke four languages and worked as an artist in Vienna prior to World War II. The New York Times detailed his escape from POW Camp Starks in New Hampshire in the October 15, 1944 edition.


Watch a video about the 2003 return of four World War II German soldiers to Houlton, where they were held as POWs at Camp Houlton.