Helmut's Heroes

October, 2014.

I talked in a previous entry about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) posts that were built across Michigan in the 1930s. A secondary function that these CCC camps served after their Roosevelt-era usefulness had concluded was to hold Nazi prisoners captured during World War II. Yes, that's correct; Nazi soldiers were held in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the 1940s--over 1,000 in fact.

One such place of internment was Camp Raco, in Chippewa County. Despite the uneventful visit I had to Camp Lunden, I was interested in seeing Camp Raco because it seemed that there were actually some ruins left behind to investigate.

Camp Raco is located along a very monotonous stretch of highway through National Forest lands, and once we pulled off the road we immediately found ourselves amongst its former foundations, so we parked and got out to investigate on foot.

A documentary film was actually produced by Northern Michigan University's television station about the Michigan Nazi prisoner of war (POW) camps, entitled The Enemy in Our Midst. An article from WNMUTV gives more information on the camps from the film.

Camp Raco was the first CCC post established in the Upper Peninsula, according to a writeup on waymarking.com, and it was known originally as the "Lone Pine Camp," later officially designated as "Camp Raco F-5." It was home to CCC Company 667, which was organized in April of 1933 with 200 men from Detroit and Hamtramck.

Their work in this region included planting trees, building truck trails, erecting new telephone lines, improving erosion control for local streams, building campgrounds, stocking lakes with fish, and constructing fire breaks to reduce the potential for catastrophic forest fires.

By 1942 Camp Raco was the only operating camp left in the district, and its fire protection area covered 151,140 acres. I imagine they also built the fire watchtowers where Forest Service rangers would keep an eye out for fires, and dispatch crews to battle any blazes.

This flat, raised area had actually been the main road through the center of camp we realized, now overgrown in grasses, moss, and lichen:

A closer look reveled it to be paved at least partially with bricks and rocks pressed into asphalt:

There are some good historic photos of the camp online at genealogytrails.com, and a good overview photo of the camp at giftbasketsfrommichigan.com. According to the WNMUTV article, the CCC camps generally included a library, bath house, kitchen, mess hall, dispensary, infirmary, a recreation area, and barracks. Features such as guard towers and barbed-wire fences were added later when they were converted to hold ex-Nazis.

It was probably a fairly seamless transition from CCC camp to POW camp in 1942; I imagine all of the men who had been stationed here with the CCC were enlisted to go fight Hitler, and it wasn't long before they started sending back captured Nazis to fill their empty bunks. According to WNMUTV, Camp Raco held 267 POWs, and was staffed by three officers and 43 enlistedmen.

The guards manning the watchtowers were armed with carbines and .38 caliber revolvers, and for every 30 prisoners on a work detail there was at least one guard to monitor them while they worked in the woods outside the camp perimeter.

So it seems like security was relatively light, but the article mentions that "escapes from the prison camps were infrequent," given the fact that the prospective escapee would face a language barrier, and patriotic locals would undoubtedly shoot them on sight--assuming they somehow survived the Upper Peninsula's famous cold, snow, and endless mosquito-infested swampy barrens that an escapee would have to trek through in order to get anywhere.

The POWs were not just held captive in cells, they were used to alleviate the shortage of manpower on the home front caused by the draft. Essentially, they filled the role that the CCC had performed before the war. The prisoners were paid 80 cents per day by the government for logging work for the war effort, which went to make wooden crates for shipping things like ammunition, food, clothing, and spare parts for tanks and planes, according to the WNMUTV article.

Several local companies engaged in war work also benefited from the POW labor, and they in turn reimbursed the government for the work at the prevailing wage scale. The prisoners of Camp Raco did such work for the Newberry Lumber & Chemical Co., which was a producer of lumber, pig iron, methanol, acetic acid, wood oil, and other byproducts related to wood.

The Red Cross also inspected the camps to ensure that they were humane, and morale was fairly good amongst the prisoners, which was even further assurance against escapes. They were apparently allowed time to make handicrafts, sketch, or play musical instruments--not much different at all from CCC life. Many of the prisoners could speak English, and several were friendly with their captors.

I imagine that most of them were more relieved to be out of the fighting and saw this as a peaceful vacation away from the battlefield and Nazi fervor...many of the Germans had been forced into army service against their will, and surrendered to the Allies as soon as they could. I envision a place like Camp Raco to have been like a reverse version of Hogan's Heroes.

A rare few POWs did try escaping the camps, but all of them either returned on their own or were easily recaptured. On the occasion that Nazi SS men were taken into these camps, they were probably kept under closer guard than their regular counterparts.

There were four other former CCC camps in the Upper Peninsula that held Nazi POWs--Camp Evelyn and Camp AuTrain in Alger County, Camp Pori and Camp Sidnaw in Houghton County. I tried to find Camp Pori on my trips to Silver Mountain, but never had any luck. Camp Germfask in Schoolcraft County also housed about 80 Conscientious Objectors (or "Conchies" fer short, eh). They were Americans who opted not to fight during the war on religious or moral grounds. Sadly, they were generally labeled as cowards (whether it was true or not), and used for grunt labor much the same way that the POWs were.

I think this may have been the site of an old aerial antenna:

Here is what looks to have been an anchor for a guy wire:

Finally we spotted what looked to be an old cobblestone chimney:

It was definitely CCC-era construction, and still in remarkably good shape.

It was the only one we found intact, so I wonder what happened to the others, and why this one was left alone.

This side would have faced inward to the wall of whatever wooden building used to be here:

What's left of the flue:

Old CCC camps weren't the only places in Michigan where POWs were held--Fort Wayne in Detroit held many Italians captured in the North African theater. Pretty much any federal facility that could be converted into a prison or work camp was used to take POWs.

WNMUTV says that at least 375,000 POWs were held at more than 500 camps across the U.S. from 1942-1946. Michigan had a total of about 20 camps, and held around 6,000 POWs.

I'm not exactly sure what these ruins belonged to, but they looked fairly substantial:

It almost seems as if these mortared stones were pieces of a building foundation that were dug up from the ground during demolition.

Here were the front steps to one of the buildings, now carpeted in moss and fallen pine needles:

The base to another chimney? A pit-toilet vault?

Along the camp road again, we started to see more sets of concrete steps sitting in front of open areas where old buildings would have once sat...


You can see a walkway still leading up to this set of steps:

The road again:

Another substantial foundation:

More stairs:

A trace of galvanized plumbing left behind:

Even delving back into the verge of the woods revealed the occasional foundation, slowly being swallowed by nature:

And here was an old dump:

It doesn't look like any of this rubbish quite dates to the WWII-era however.

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