Passing the Time: Artwork by World War II German POWs

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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.

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