Nazi Prisoners at Moody Field Worked Ray City Farms

During WWII roughly 372,000 German POWs were held in about 600 prisoners of war camps operated by the U.S. Army across the United States.  One such prison camp was established at  Moody Army Air Field (now Moody Air Force Base), about 7 miles south of Ray City, GA.

Walter and Herman Schroer, Elias M. “Hun” Knight and Lewis Bauknight were among those who used German POWs from Moody Field to help with farm labor. The Schroers operated a bedding plant farm just south of Ray City and employed more than 100 German prisoners  to pull and bundle the plants.  Hun Knight and Lewis Bauknight had work for about six to eight prisoners each week  during the summer cropping tobacco. In Lowndes and surrounding counties, German POWs  also worked sugar cane, peanuts, and especially timber.

WWII German Prisoners of War in Georgia.
WWII German Prisoners of War in Georgia. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/51916128@N03/5085141454/

The German POWs first arrived at Moody Field just before Thanksgiving in 1943. News accounts heralding the arrival focused on the economic benefits and the security of the prison camp.

The Valdosta Times
November 22, 1943 

NAZI PRISONERS NOW AT MOODY

Officials of Local Post to Confer Today With City and County Authorities on Labor Activities

MOODY FIELD, Ga. – Officials from this Army Air Forces Pilot School were to confer today with Valdosta and Lowndes county officials in regard to work activities of the German prisoners of war now quartered at this post.

The conference was scheduled in an effort to aid in the labor shortage of this section, which has been highlighted by demands for farm and other labor, depleted by war industries and armed services.

The group of prisoners arrived at Moody Field last week-end and will be under the supervision of Lt. Edward T. Lillis of Arlington, Va., Prisoner of War Camp Commander, who commands the contingent of the 315th Military Police Escort Guard Company, assigned to guard the Nazis. Lt. Lillis arrived at Moody Field from Camp Blanding, Fla.

The Nazi prisoners are being quartered in buildings on the parade ground, near the motor pool of this Pilot School. The Military Police have their quarters in the same area, outside the prison stockade.

In November of 1943, newspaper articles in the Atlanta Constitution were commenting on the POW camps and  laborers  in Georgia.

The Atlanta Constitution
Nov. 23, 1943 

“There are individual [pulpwood] producers in and around Valdosta who have been making shipments weekly in excess of 200 carloads, because of available manpower from farms.  Production is expected to soar even higher after this week, it being planned to put a number of German war prisoners from Moody Field into the woods beginning Monday, and things will move smoothly unless the shipments should cause a shortage in transportation. – 

The Atlanta Constitution
November 28, 1943, pg 14A

VALDOSTA, Ga., Nov. 27. –  Lieutenant Edward T. Lillis, who commands the contingent of the Military Escort Guard Company, assigned to guarding the German prisoners of war at Moody Field, was the guest speaker Thursday at the dedication of the annex and recreation center of the Valdosta Hebrew congregation.

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Judge William Daniel "Jack" Knight, son of E.M. "Hun" Knight and Gladys Daniel Knight. He served as a judge of the Superior Courts of the Alapaha Judicial Circuit, 1977-1996.

Judge William Daniel “Jack” Knight, son of E.M. “Hun” Knight and Gladys Daniel Knight. He served as a judge of the Superior Courts of the Alapaha Judicial Circuit, 1977-1996.

The late Judge W.D. “Jack” Knight, of Berrien County, was a boy of ten growing up at Ray City when the German POW camp was established at Moody Field.  He later recalled how the German prisoners worked on his father’s farm:

It was 1943 or 1944 , German WWII prisoners were kept in a stockade or prison at Moody Air Force Base.

 My Daddy, (E. M. “Hun” Knight) had a farm located three miles south of Moody Air Force Base in those years. On this farm lived Lewis and Loudell Bauknight, who were “tenant farmers”.  Corn, peanuts and tobacco were the main crops grown, but sometimes watermelons and cucumbers were grown on a “share crop basis”.

My Daddy and Lewis received permission from the military authorities to work a group of these prisoners on our farm “cropping” tobacco.  Lewis would go to Moody AFB early each morning in his old pickup truck and get the prisoners and transport them back to our farm for work. As I recall the prisoners would sit in the back of the truck and the MP (armed guard) would sit in front with Lewis.  There would usually be six or eight prisoners working each time and they would bring their lunch which had been prepared in the “mess” at Moody AFB.

Each group would have one or two who could speak English and they would receive instructions from Lewis as to how to “crop” the tobacco and translate it on to the other prisoners.  When they first began to work they wanted to “crop” all the leaves off the tobacco stalk and had to be told to only “crop” three leaves from each stalk.

They were dressed in military clothes (brown) with a large “PW” on their backs. The all had military issue shoes and were real neat with short hair cuts and most of them had blonde hair.

At this time, I was ten years old and worked on the farm each time that tobacco was gathered and was very impressed by this entire matter.  As I recall, my daddy had to pay each prisoner twenty-five  or fifty cents per day as the military didn’t want people to say we were using slave labor on the farms.

Each time they came, Lewis’ wife, Loudell, (an excellent cook) would prepare a huge farm dinner for all of us who worked at the barn.  She would always give them som of that food and they very quickly began to like it, and the same group wanted to come back to our farm for each tobacco gathering which was once each week during the summer months.
~ Judge W. D. Jack Knight

German POWs at a prison camp in Georgia. Source: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-592

German POWs at a prison camp in Georgia.  Source: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-592

Area residents found the German prisoners intriguing from several perspectives.  These were the enemies that the native sons of south Georgia were fighting against;  they were Hitler’s “supermen.”  And they were the economic salvation of the region, in a time when the available farm labor had all been recruited for the war effort.  Many residents would later recall seeing truckloads of German POWs being transported around the region under military guard, to serve as laborers on the farms and timber lands of the Wiregrass.  In an Op/Ed piece, the Valdosta Times commented on the myth and facts of the German prisoners of war that were interned at Moody Field.

The Valdosta Times
Monday, December 6, 1943

HEIL ROOSEVELT

The appearance of German prisoners at work in various places about this section has been creating quite a stir lately. Crowds have flocked to these spots to get a view of the Germans, anxious to see what they look like…only to find that they look just about like the Americans they see on the street every day…exploding in their minds any ideas they may have had about Hitler’s race of “supermen.”

It seems there’s been a false impression made by the rumors going the rounds that the Nazi prisoners are not such good workers. Reports coming in from the pulpwood operators and others employing the prisoners indicate that the prisoners are catching on speedily to jobs which the have never done, and which they have never seen done.

One pulpwood operator, S.M. Hemingway, is quick in telling you that the German prisoners of war are the happiest bunch of fellows he ever saw, and that he ever saw, and that they are easy to guard, since the last thing they seem to have on their minds is the idea of leaving three squares daily, comfortable living quarters and the regular pay they receive … only for a chance to escape to their own bomb-ridden country where they would be again sent into battle to face death.  Their chances of getting back are nil, anyhow.  Mr. Hemingway says that while the Germans are entirely “green” when it comes to cutting pulpwood, they are good workers, and learning fast.  He also states that they are witty, and enjoy a good joke as well as the next fellow.

This writer visited a few of them at work at the Nat Smith brick warehouse one afternoon last week, where they were hard at work unloading fertilizer from boxcars.  They were in high spirits.  One of the prisoners, while waiting to load the wheelbarrows, had drawn on the side of the car, in the dust of the fertilizer, an image of President Roosevelt.  Probably they wanted someone’s picture to heil.

 South Georgians would later recall the impact of the German prisoners, and the positive cultural interchange that occurred, even under difficult war-time conditions.

The Charlotte Observer
May 5, 2002

German POWs Affected the South

  Harley Langdale had a hard time finding ablebodied workers during World War II, so he didn’t hesitate when offered hundreds of strong former soldiers who would cut timber, plant seedlings and clear land.

    The soldiers weren’t American heroes returning from the front. They were German prisoners of war, some of the hundreds of thousands taken to camps in the United States-most of them in the South.

“Some people were afraid of them,” said Langdale, 87. “They thought some would get away but we never did have any serious incidents.”

The camps are an all-but-forgotten part of history, but the prisoners did leave some remnants behind in south Georgia and throughout the country.

Langdale’s POWs came from camps at Moody Field near Valdosta and Fargo, an isolated Okefenokee Swamp town. They planted many of the azaleas at what is now Moody Air Force Base, and there still is a “Prison Camp Road” north of Fargo.

Some 700 internment camps were thrown up in the United States to detain 426,000 enemy soldiers, who arrived sometimes at a rate of 30,000 a month. Some Americans resented the relative comfort and food provided the enemy soldiers. Texans called camps the “Fritz Ritz.”

But Georgians said the Germans won people over.

“I got the impression they were glad to be over here,” said Langdale, chairman of the Langdale Co., a major south Georgia timber company. “I didn’t see any animosity toward us at all.”

Although there were a few Japanese and Italian prisoners, most were Germans.

“The young women from the area…remember they were good-looking and didn’t spit, because they didn’t chew tobacco,” said Renate Milner, a German-born historian in Valdosta who is writing a book about the POWs.

The German internees are still remembered for their skills and hard work. With most of America’s young men overseas, the POWs helped overcome a labor shortage by harvesting crops and doing other physical labor for 80 cents a day.  

About 466 of the 700 camps were in the South; Georgia had 40 with 11,800 prisoners, Milner said.

“The government classified them as unskilled laborers, but in reality they were very skilled carpenters, mechanics and goldsmiths,” Milner said. “They were pulled into the military at 16 or 17, but by then, they had already been trained” in technical schools.

Audrey Peters, 77, worked at Moody Field during the war. The Valdosta woman still has a wooden jewelry box made by one of the prisoners, who carved “Gerhard Todte, Moody Field 1.9.1945” on the bottom.

“They were nice people,” she said. “Of course we didn’t fraternize with them. I tried to locate him, but I couldn’t. I wanted to see how he was doing and thank him for the box.”

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