Monday, April 26, 2021

Camp Pine, a WWII German POW Camp in the Cook County forest preserves near Des Plaines, Illinois.

Camp Pine Woods is located south of Lake Avenue — east of the Des Plaines River — north of Central Road — west of Milwaukee Avenue in the Cook County forest preserves near Des Plaines, Illinois.

Camp Pine Forest Preserve was formerly a Nazi POW camp for German soldiers. During WWII (September 1, 1939 – September 2, 1945), the Americans realized that, because of the expenses of shipping food and supplies to overseas prisoners of war, it would actually be cheaper to bring prisoners to the States. 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.

The U.S. Army’s Fort Sheridan was utilized as an administrative headquarters for a system of 37 POW camps throughout Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. Four of the Illinois camps were located in the Cook County; Camp Pine; Camp Skokie Valley; Arlington Fields, and Camp Thornton

Fort Sheridan in Highwood, Lake County.

Camp Ellis, by Bernadotte, Fulton County.

Camp Galesburg, Knox County.

Camp Grant in Rockford, Winnebago County.

Camp Hampshire, Kane County.

Camp Hoopeston, Vermilion County.

Camp Washington, Washington County. 

Camp Pine was opened in what had been barracks constructed during the Great Depression to house the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program. 

The German men lived in five crude barrack-styled buildings on the high ground along the Des Plaines River. Each building was heated by a single wood-burning stove. There were 8 outdoor privies to accommodate the 280 or so prisoners and guards there. Prisoners carried out public works projects near Dam № 2. 

The majority of German POWs were captured by U.S. forces in the North Africa and Italian campaigns. 

The North African campaign of WWII took place in North Africa from June 1940 to May 1943. 

The Italian campaign of WWII, also called the Liberation of Italy, consisted of Allied and Axis operations in and around Italy, from July 1943 to May 1945.

Prisoners were originally housed at Fort Sheridan in Highwood, Illinois, and their labor was used to turn the old WPA barracks into what would become Camp Pine. The camp was opened for German POWs in May 1945.
Aerial photograph of Camp Pine, 1938.

In conjunction with the Cook County Farm Labor Association, the US Government put the POWs to work at local farms and some businesses. A few even worked in Pesche's gardens in Des Plaines. The prisoners worked for 8¢ an hour ($1.50/hr today) and were paid in cash or canteen coupons.

The locals took well to having the POWs so close to home. The Germans took notice and often would wave at Des Plaines residents as they drove trucks of produce through town. One Des Plaines couple was so kind to the Germans that it almost landed them in trouble with the FBI. During the days of Camp Pine, the Daily Herald reported that FBI agents monitoring the camp had a run-in with two Des Plaines citizens who were driving three prisoners back to Camp Pine at 2 am. After the FBI found out that the couple had simply taken the Germans home for "a good supper," the feds decided no harm was done.

Security was lax enough that occasionally a German prisoner managed to escape. As one of the stories goes one prisoner who disappeared was found working in a Chicago bookstore, which he later purchased. According to another story, an escapee who had no interest in returning to Germany, where his hometown was held by the Soviets, made his way to California and became a tennis pro. Many of the prisoners liked living in this country so much that they returned at war’s end to become permanent residents.

Nationally, the U.S. government grossly underestimated how many German prisoners it would have to place in camps here. The number was thought to be 50,000 to 75,000 but ended up being 420,000 by the time the war was over.

By the time the camp closed in March of 1946, only around 30 POWs remaining of the nearly 200 that had been housed there. Many of the former prisoners returned home to Germany, but some were so enamored that they decided to stay in America. 

After the POWs were released from Camp Pine, it enjoyed a brief period as a Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps, who probably enjoyed their stays much more than their German predecessors. Not much is left of Camp Pine today except rubble and some rusty plumbing. 
The moss-covered foundation of one of Camp Pine barracks.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

Open Prisoner of War Camp Near Des Plaines.
A branch German prisoner of war camp has been opened north of Des Plaines. Formerly used by the Civilian Consercation Corps. (CCC), it has been named Camp Pine and will house 75 prisoners who will work on truck farms in the Des Plaines vicinity.
                                                                           —Chicago Tribune, Sunday, May 6, 1945

175 German Prisoners III of Food Poisoning.
Army spokesmen disclosed last night that 175 German prisoners of war housed at Camp Pine, near Des Plaines, were stricken with food poisoning after the evening meal. Officers suspected potato salad and whiteiish as the possible cause. Maj. R. L. Hiatt, executive officer at Fort Sheridan hospital, said none of the prisoners was critically ill, altho many would be hospitalized for several days.
                                                                    —Chicago Tribune, Monday, August 13, 1945

Three German War Prisoners Escape Camp.
Three German prisoners of war escaped last night from Camp Pine, north of the village of Des Plaines. The prisoners were identified as Conrad Blum, 46; Irwin Koerkel, 20; and Waldemar Bogl, 30. Blum and Bogl are fair and blue eyed. Koerkel has dark hair and hazel eyes. Blum is 5 feet 6 inches tall; Bogl 5 feet 8 inches; and Koerkel 5 feet 9. All wore clothing  bearing the letters "PW" on the back.
                                                                    —Chicago Tribune, Saturday March 30, 1946

By 1949, Camp Pine hosted the first Fall Festival of Girl Scouts. The outing put on by eight suburban Girl Scout councils that maintain cabins at the site.

The old German soldier buried his face in the carnations and summoned memories of his days as a prisoner of war at a Des Plaines greenhouse.

He calls his days as an American captive "the good life."

The experiences of Rudolf Velte and thousands of others who served in Hitler's army during World War II and ended up as POWs in the U.S. created a peculiar if little-known, historical footnote to the war. And a half-century later, the story continues to play out in the odd pilgrimages that Velte and others have made to the scenes of their imprisonment.

The comfortable incarcerations were a strategy by the U.S. military to encourage Hitler's regime to treat its 90,000 American POWs humanely, according to historians. Yet the tactic failed miserably, leaving the alternative notion that the program was an appalling and misguided benevolence toward the army of the Third Reich, even as liberating troops were exposing the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau.

For Velte, at least, the episode was a surprising salvation from the tumult of a war that swept him up as a 20-year-old and ultimately landed him in Africa, unaware, he says, of what was happening to Jews in his native land.

Today, he remains effusively grateful for the American kindness, seemingly disinclined to view the historical ironies of his sojourn in the Chicago suburbs.

Unlike Allied POWs or Japanese-Americans held in California internment camps, Velte remembers his imprisonment fondly. He worked for pay picking carnations and ate until his belly was full. He played soccer and socialized with American guards and local families. Thousands of German soldiers in hundreds of camps nationwide had similar experiences, historians say.

In fact, Hitler's soldiers lived so well in these camps that thousands migrated back after the war and became U.S. citizens.

In 1945, Velte was one of 215 captured Germans assigned to Camp Pine, a tiny fortress nestled in the woods along the east bank of the Des Plaines River, a half-mile south of Euclid Avenue.

Now a 77-year-old retired baker from Niederweimar, Germany, Velte recently made his first trip to the United States since WW II, stopping in Des Plaines to walk the grounds at his old POW camp and, at the Pesche greenhouse, to meet the family of an American he considered a wartime friend.

"After 51 years, to be back, it's almost too much," Velte said as his wife of 48 years, Elisabeth, snapped photos in the greenhouse. "This has been a beautiful day for me."

Arnold Krammer, a Texas A&M history professor who interviewed 250 POWs for his book "Nazi Prisoners of War in America," said Velte's experience is far from unusual.

"Most of the German prisoners told me this was the greatest time in their lives. They were treated wonderfully, and they were out of the fighting," Krammer said.

"It may be galling for us to think about this now . . . but we have the misfortune of knowing how it all turned out. At the time, our greatest hatred was saved for the Japanese. And these prisoners were not the ones who were sealing the gas chambers. It was done by Germans, but it wasn't done by these Germans."

At the time, the U.S. military didn't widely advertise that it was holding some 425,000 German soldiers in 511 camps throughout the U.S.—a move driven by the shortage of American labor and the logistics of shipping food to Europe to feed a half-million POWs.

"I think the camps pretty much escaped the public eye," said Tom Kocher, who spent 12 years as the military museum curator at the now-closed Fort Sheridan in Highwood, Illinois, which served as a Midwest clearinghouse for 15,000 prisoners and 46 branch camps.

But even those Americans who worked with the POWs or watched them roll into town had a tough time summoning hatred for the young men in tattered Nazi uniforms.

"It was just too far removed from the horrors of war," Kocher said. "That's why the prisoners were viewed as victims of circumstance... kids caught fighting in a brown shirt with a swastika on their arm."

Added Krammer: "The American public was really kind of awestruck by the Germans. They seemed so much like us."

In this part of the Midwest, the branch camps were scattered throughout Wisconsin, Michigan, and the Illinois communities of Arlington Heights, Glenview, Thornton, and Des Plaines—locations that brought the German POWs closer to the towns that needed agricultural workers.

When news reports suggested that Nazi prisoners were coddled here—especially after the concentration camp atrocities were publicized in early 1945—the American military painted a harsher picture.

"If anyone thinks these prisoners are given a soft life, they should come on an inspection tour of these base camps," a Fort Sheridan officer wrote in a statement to the Des Plaines Journal printed April 12, 1945. "No special privileges or cuddling (sic) is being shown to these men . . . they dislike us and our country as much as we do them."

Like other prisoners, Velte spent nine months working on area farms. Though none of the work was back-breaking, he landed a particularly plum assignment: picking and delivering carnations for a friendly Des Plaines florist named Fred Pesche, a Luxembourg native who chatted with his prisoners in German and fed them hot lunches of bratwurst, black bread, and an occasional beer.

Velte said he doesn't believe his captors were soft, although he knows he might have encountered a different welcome had Americans seen their country devastated by Nazi bombs and invaded by the German forces.

"We had a lot of respect for the Americans, especially after the (D-Day) invasion," Velte, a stout man with young eyes and richly lined face, said through a translator. "We knew the war was going to end, and we would win our freedom."

Velte's war story started in 1939 when he was drafted at age 20 into the air force regiment of Hermann Goering. Velte said he fought because his country told him he must, not because he believed in the ideals of the Nazi Party or its leader, Adolf Hitler.

"Most of the soldiers were not pro-fanatic Nazis," Velte said. "We were forced into it. What actually went on (in the concentration camps), we didn't know. We had no idea."

He spent two years in Germany, then was sent to Africa in late 1942 to support the retreat of the Afrika Korps. On May 11, 1943, he was captured in Tunisia by the French army.

Velte almost died during this time from chronic diarrhea and malnutrition, he said and dropped to 93 pounds. Desperate, he escaped the French camp with a fellow prisoner.

He surrendered to English troops and was treated in their hospital. The Americans took control of the POWs in October 1943, and Velte was put on a military cargo ship to Virginia.

From there, he spent time at POW camps in Nebraska, Michigan, and Rockford. At one camp, Velte remembers watching films of Nazi concentration camp atrocities. His reaction then was a common one among the POWs: He did not believe it.

Velte was one of the first to arrive at Camp Pine, just a week after it opened in May 1945. And while nothing now remains from the camp except a rusty flagpole, Velte had no trouble recognizing the site during his visit 51 years later. With his American cousin, Art Bodenbender of Moline, Velte pointed to the spot where he once played cards with American guards.

Velte stayed at Camp Pine until February 1946, when he was sent home to Germany. He married, fathered four children, and spent his life running his own bakery.

Frank Pesche was 18 when he first met Velte and the other prisoners who worked for his dad. The camp was a novelty in the tiny farming community, and Frank and his young friends used to sneak into the camp some nights just to see if they could trip the searchlights.

"Most people in town didn't even know they were here," said Pesche, whose family business is one of the few former POW farm employers still intact after all these years.

Velte laughs when asked if he ever considered escaping.

"No. Why? We had a good life," he said. "We had almost total freedom."

Chicago Tribune, Wednesday, June 5, 1996
By Tracy Dell'Angela, Tribune Staff Writer


  1. Wonderful history involving my one of my favorite local businesses and bit of land. Thanks for sharing your research! -Zack from Skokie

    1. Thank you Dr Gale for another illuminating article. I grew up in Evanston and much, much later DP, went to school with some Pesche boys, and who would have known!

  2. Really interesting article I saved a PBS video of a privately run museum (which now also seems gone)of Camp Ellis Amazing how the infrastructure for such a large camp (over 5000) was created on farmland in the middle of nowhere I tried to get my Dad (German born US Army WWII vet) to go visit then, but like Many of his generation, their way of dealing w their war experience was to forget rather than revisit it and move on

  3. So much history of a place where I attended Girl Scout camp in the fifties! Little did I know of the provenance until a few years ago. I wonder if any buildings still exist. I just passed by there recently.

  4. Thank you Dr. Gale for this history lesson. My grandfather was Fred Sr. ( Ferdinand) and my father is and always will be ( now deceased ) Frank Pesche. There were 11 children in Fred Sr.'s family that all played a role in the family greenhouse business, my uncle Fred Jr. in particular.
    As children we all heard the stories about the Camp Pine facility and how well my grandfather treated the men that worked for him from that camp. One thing that remained the same over the years...when I turned 18 ( 1970 ) the payscale was basically the same as it was in 1945. Thanks for bringing back mostly fond memories.

  5. My mother was a WWII Army nurse assigned to hospital ships that brought wounded American soldiers home from Europe to US hospitals and took wounded German POW’s from American POW camps back to Germany on the return trips at the end of the war… she said they would have tears in their eyes as they first caught sight of the homeland from the rail of the ship. She said they were always gracious, polite and thankful for the good treatment that they received. I was not aware that some of the camps were local…

  6. One of my classmates at Bloom Township High School, Class of 1969) was the child of a German POW interned in the Chicago area. The POW returned to Germany, married, had two children, and eventually returned to Chicgoland.


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