The following glimpse of the German Prisoner of War Camp at Letchworth Park is far from complete. We don't have any images or detailed accounts of the camp if any visitors have additional information, memories, or photographs to share please send them to us!
We would like to thank the historical staff at Letchworth Park as well Cathy Parker and Jim Little at the Castile Historical House for providing material for this story and for their ongoing search for information!
The story of Letchworth's prisoner of war camp goes back to the middle of World War II. The successful Allied offensive in North Africa had led to the need to house the thousands of German soldiers captured during the campaign. The War Department decided the best approach would be to build POW camps within the United States, resulting in almost every state in the Union having at least one prisoner or war camp by 1945. New York State would have several, including the one in Letchworth State Park.
The first POW camp in New York was set up at Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) in northern New York in 1943. The camp first held Italian prisoners, but soon German POWs began to arrive. To handle the rising numbers, many prisoners were sent to branch camps, some of which were in Western New York. The long distances between the base and branch camps led to the establishment of a second base camp at Fort Niagara by June of 1944. The military personal at Fort Niagara oversaw the establishment of a number of additional branch camps throughout the area, including Attica, Geneseo, Rochester, Hamlin Beach, Oakfield, Medina, and Letchworth State Park.
Geneseo and some of the other locales the camp had to be built
from scratch, the old C.C.C. camps at Letchworth and Hamlin Beach
proved to be useful. As early as the fall of 1943 former CCC
buildings at Letchworth had already provided housing for "Bohemian
laborers, both male and female". Park Commissioner Secretary
Van Arsdale reported in June of 1944 "that the former CCC
Camp building in both Hamlin Beach and Letchworth Parks are to
be used in housing German Prisoners of War to help relieve the
labor shortage in harvesting and canning of fruits and vegetables."
He also indicated that the Gibsonville Cabin Area (modern day
cabin area C) that had been built by CCC workers had been leased
to the Birds-Eye-Snider Division of General Foods to house female
workers at the nearby canning factory in Mount Morris.
Life for the German POWs was not overly difficult. According to one former POW who returned to Western NY for a visit in 1987, the Letchworth barracks were somewhat small, housing thirty to fifty men each. If they were similar to other POW barracks, they were furnished in military style with open squad rooms with rows of steel cots. They were heated by coal stoves and had both electric lights and hot and cold running water.
The POWs ate well and received medical care Erhard Dallman, a former POW who returned to Western NY in the 1980's, remembered that he had spent much of his captivity driving a doctor from Fort Niagara to the various branch camps in order care for the sick and injured.
The Prisoners also organized their own activities (with American supervision) and in some camps they started their own band, school, and newspaper. They played a variety of sports, especially soccer, and were given some radios to listen to musical performances and American radio shows.
Many area people remember seeing the POWs working in the local canning factories and farm fields. One resident of the Geneseo area remember that as a young girl working in the canning factory in Geneseo, she made friends with a prisoner who worked with her, often bringing him candy and other small gifts. After the war she received a card in the mail from one of the former POWs who had returned home in it was a photograph of her German friend in his military uniform and a note of thanks for her kindness to an "enemy" soldier.
Local farm families also recall the soldiers working in the fields helping with the harvest. The soldiers received pay for their work the standard pay was 80 cents a day in "canteen coupons". What they didn't spend was credited to them at the end of the war went they were repatriated to Germany.
Although the Letchworth Camp had barbed wire, it was probably more to ease the concerns of local residents than hold the prisoners. According to Dallman, some prisoners were actually allowed to sign in and out of the camp. Mazuzan and Walker were told by one Geneseo resident that he once saw three German prisoners sitting at the curb at the county courthouse with no guard in sight. When he asked what they were during, they told him they were waiting for the truck to take them back to camp. What kept them from escaping? One of the prisoner asked "Where would we go"?
The German prisoners were still at the Lower Falls Camp well after the end of the War. In fact, the POW population peaked in Western New York at 4,194 in October of 1945, several months after the War ended. This may be due to the shifting of prisoners from western camps in preparation to returning them back to Germany. It is not clear when the last POW's left Letchworth, but in the winter of 1946 the Commission's charman reported that "Most of the buildings in both CCC Camp Sp-49 (Lower Falls) Letchworth Park and CCC Camp- 53 Hamlin Beach Park were taken down and removed to Buffalo to reconstructed for Veteran's housing by a contractor under arrangements by the State Housing Authority." It was during this project that Archie Maker, probably working for that contractor, found the artifacts left behind by one of the prisoners. (See our Pieces of the Past)
One can still find some traces of the old CCC camp just behind the pool at the Lower Falls. The story of the Lower Falls CCC camp is an important part of the Letchworth Story. We should also remember another chapter of that story the days of the German Prison Camp during World War II.
State Park Commission Minutes 1943-46
Historical Files, Castile Historical House, Castile NY
Interview with Ada Beebe by Tom Cook circa 1975
Interview of Erhard Dallman by Tom Breslin May 24, 1987
Mazuzan, George T and Nancy Walker, "Restricted Areas: German Prisoner-of-War Camps in Western New York, 1944-46", in New York History, January 1978 pp 55-72