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Tracing POWs in Fairfax

Abu Ghraib prompts local historian to study World War II camp.

Earlier this year, as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal saturated newspapers and TV screens, Tom Hovis was moved to research another, earlier military prison. Unlike Abu Ghraib, this camp was situated right in the heart of Fairfax County and held German World War II soldiers most of whom had been captured in North Africa.

Hovis, the historian for American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax City, first heard of the county's prisoners of war a year a half ago.

"I was sitting here at the post and somebody said, 'You know, they're going to put some townhouses at the old POW camps in Fairfax,'" he said.

In contrast to the stories of Iraqis abused at the hands of American soldiers in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, Hovis found that the German POWs required minimal supervision as they went to work on nearby farms and that their work ethic and good manners made them popular in the community.

DURING WORLD WAR II, POW camps became a popular and cheap way for communities to alleviate labor shortages. Nationwide, about 425,000 POWs were shipped to the United States, according to "The German Research Companion," a book by Shirley Riemer tracing the history of Germans in America. In Virginia, 17,000 prisoners were kept in 27 camps, according to a 1977 article in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.

The Fairfax camp was the brainchild of a farmers' group — the Fairfax County Agricultural Cooperative Association — and the county's extension agent, a state official tasked with helping local farmers. Back then, Fairfax County was still mostly rural, producing more milk than any other county in Virginia.

At first, the idea generated some controversy.

"There is always a danger of prisoners escaping and it is a dangerous situation," said Ethel Dennis, at a May 14, 1945 public hearing in front of the Board of Zoning Appeals. The minutes of the BZA meeting and several other documents are today kept in a file in the Virginia Room of the Fairfax City Regional Library.

The first prisoners arrived on June 13, 1945 and left on Nov. 16 that same year. During those five months, an average of 120 prisoners put in 111,000 hours for 198 local farmers and husked 3,500 shocks of corn, according to a 1945 report by the county's extension agent, L. S. Greene. For their efforts, they received a symbolic amount of $1 a day in canteen coupons. Since few prisoners spoke English, Greene had to learn some German before the POWs arrived.

"County Agent Greene is brushing up on his German, in order to enable him to lay down the law to the Germans in their own language," reported the Fairfax Herald newspaper of May 25, 1945.

"MS. KIDWELL had a couple of those prisoners working on the farm," said Lee Hubbard, a retired Fairfax County police officer who grew up in Fairfax Station.

Mary Kidwell inherited the farm across from the Fairfax County Club from "the old Dr. Brooks" in 1941 and needed help to farm it, Hubbard said.

"My dad was there and I was there and I was about 10 or 11. My dad took them to our house for lunch and they sat on the back porch and they ate what we ate," he said. "They wanted to drink milk and I distinctly remember they asked if it would be OK to put sugar in their milk."

This was an unusual request as sugar was a rationed commodity, but Hubbard remembered his mother gave them some.

The young Lee Hubbard stood by the table and talked with the soldiers, clean-shaven, blond-haired and blue-eyed men in their 20s wearing identical denim shirts, he recalled.

"They told me how to say two words in German," he said. The first was Messer, the German word for knife. The second was Wasser, which means water. "That's the only two words I remember them teaching me," he said.

HOVIS HAS heard similar stories. "One farmer in particular had a really firm deadline," he said. "At the end of the day, he was so impressed by [the POWs] that he took them down to the local country store a bought them all a beer."

Fairfax's POWs were low-ranking soldiers who could be sent to work on farms under relatively little security, he added.

"I don't remember them sending a guard to the farms with them because we didn't take the guard home to lunch. Just the two men," said Hubbard.

In the evenings, the POWs returned to their camp, a prison site on Route 29 near Waples Mill Road which usually helped state inmates. Today, the site houses a sprawling self-storage facility.

On the weekends, the prisoners would organize soccer games, that were well attended, said Hovis.

"When they'd have soccer games the young ladies would come out to watch," he said, noting that "there was never any kind of liaison."

"Some of them liked it here," recalled Lehman Young, a Fairfax native who returned from the war in 1946. "One or two stayed here after the war."

Hovis said the U.S. Army treated its prisoners well so that they would be well-disposed toward the Unites States when they returned to Germany.

"The United States had a great dividend by how well they treated the prisoners," he said.

But Vincent Sutphin, who used to live behind the camps, recalled an incident that shook his confidence in the army. One night, he said, he saw a prisoner walk out of the camp with a guard behind him. The prisoner, who carried a heavy-looking bag was marched along by the guard. "He walked that guy all the way over from camp over to Waples Mill Road as punishment. And I didn't approve of that because I had just come back from overseas and we did not treat prisoners of war like that in public," he said. "I just was ashamed of the army."

Sutphin, who had fought in Europe, called the camp's captain soon after that.

"The captain came to see me and interviewed me and assured me they wouldn't punish them anymore out in public," he said.