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WWII POWs at Fort Lewis

German prisoners worked across the base

Several two-story barracks used to hold German POWs during World War II remain at JBLM. Photo credit: J.M. Simpson

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In early June 1944, Hans Koerber entered a Rainier, Oregon, café and ordered a cup of coffee.

He was cold, hungry and suffering from a leg injury.

Unable to communicate clearly with the waitress, he wrote in pencil on a napkin, "I am an escaped German war prisoner."

Koerber, along with another prisoner named Rolf Zieschang, had escaped from a prisoner of war camp at Fort Lewis.

During World War II, between 1942 and 1946, Fort Lewis held between 4,000 to 4,500 German prisoners of war.

The first POWs to appear did so in early 1942 when four Japanese, two Italians, and one German arrived from the battlefields. These men were soon transferred to other camps, and from then on Fort Lewis held only German POWs.

A few died from illness or war wounds, but most enjoyed food and living conditions better than they had in North Africa or Europe.

A fair number of the German POWs came from Erwin Rommel's famed Afrika Corps.

As per the 1929 Geneva Convention protocols concerning the treatment of POWs, there are no photographs or maps of the prisoners and camps, respectively, on Fort Lewis.

But there is the account of Wayne Shoemaker, a company clerk, who guarded the POWs between 1944 and 1945.

In an article entitled, "Working in a World War II Prisoner of War Camp" and published in the Banner, the then Fort Lewis Military Museum Association newsletter, Shoemaker provided this insight.

There were five POW camps at Fort Lewis.  Three of them were located just north of Gray Army Airfield.  Another was just east of the airfield and housed the hard core POWs.  The fifth camp was situated near the Logistics Center near now I-5.

Each camp operated independently of the others.  They had their own mess halls, supply depots, beer halls, barracks, barbershops, newspapers and libraries within barb wire fences watched by soldiers in guard towers.

The POWs stayed in the same two-story wooden barracks used by American soldiers at Fort Lewis.

The prisoners worked at either maintenance in the camp or at logging, clearing brush or harvesting crops outside of the camp.

They were paid 80 cents a day for their labor.

POWs rarely tried to escape, as they had no place to go.  The aforementioned Koerber and Zieschang were exceptions.

How these two prisoners escaped in late May 1944 is unclear.  What is known is that they spent some time in Olympia before parting ways.

As already indicated, Koerber soon turned himself in.  Zieschang, however, remained on the run for over six months.

During that time he rented an apartment and worked in San Francisco in a print shop and in a restaurant.  With his savings, he bought a bus ticket to Mexico.

The night before he reached the border, there had been an escape of some two dozen German officers from a POW camp in New Mexico.

When Zieschang tried to cross into Mexico, authorities detained him because he resembled one of the other German escapees from the POW camp in New Mexico.

After several weeks of investigation, he was positively identified through his fingerprints and returned to Fort Lewis.

When WWII ended, the last of the German POWs at Fort Lewis were repatriated to Germany by the end of 1946.

Three of them, Kurt Messner, Leo Paluczkiewicz and Karl Simon, died while in captivity and are buried in the Fort Lewis Cemetery.

The camps are long gone, and all that remains are a few buildings from a chapter of JBLM's history.

Steve Dunkelberger, Karl Koerber and Dr. Duane Dunfeld contributed to this article.

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