Among the best-kept secrets of World War II was the presence of prisoner of war camps in the United States. With food in short supply in Europe and American supply ships returning empty from the front, the U.S. military devised a plan to maximize resources at home and abroad: supply ships would return to the United States carrying prisoners from the Axis armies; these prisoners would provide a cheap source of labor to replace workers involved in the war effort overseas.
One such camp, described by Milton Bailey in his book Behind Barbed Wire (2005), was set up near the Canadian border in the small town of Houlton, Me. Though the Germans brought there were the embodiment of the enemy that their brothers and sons were fighting, the townspeople of Houlton saw something of those brothers and sons in them. Many chose to act with deliberate kindness toward the prisoners, in the hope that their goodness might invite goodness on the other side of the ocean.
More than 60 years have passed since the days of Camp Houlton, and friendships among the townspeople and the former P.O.W.’s remain alive and well. Their experiences teach us a great deal about building peace in today’s conflicted world. Lived in the spirit of the Beatitudes, their lives exemplify the role deliberate kindness can play in transforming the war on terror into an era of peace.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Gerhard Kleindt was an 18-year-old draftee in the German army when his military vehicle overturned during a gunfight on a Normandy beach. He was certain he would be shot immediately. Instead, American soldiers pulled him to safety. Sent to the prison camp in Houlton, Kleindt worked first as a cook for the guards, then as a worker on a potato farm. He got involved in educational programs at the camp that prepared him for life after the war. Looking back, Kleindt reflected: The best years of my life were spent in a prison camp behind barbed wire. It was the consequence of a senseless war that Germany had started, for which we were shamelessly misused.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. War takes away the familiarity of landscape and neighborhood. When the former P.O.W. Rudi Richter returned to Germany after the war, the destruction he found of familiar landmarks in his hometown left him disoriented. Coming upon an elderly stranger, he asked for directions to his family home. Telling the story 60 years later, Richter tears up as he explains that the villager was in fact no stranger. It was his father.
Catherine Bell was the wife of a Maine potato farmer during the war years. Before the P.O.W.’s arrived at Camp Houlton, Catherine’s brother had been lost in the war, his body never recovered. But farm life does not wait for the work of grief to be finished. The farmers needed the P.O.W.’s and the P.O.W.’s needed the work. Catherine made a choice to treat the prison help with the same dignity as her other workers. Her kindness would come back to her 60 years later when Rudi Richter accompanied her to the edge of the Baltic Sea, the final resting place of the brother she had lost.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. H. Fenton Shaw appreciated the work of the P.O.W.’s on his farm and woodland. His crew was like family to him, and at Christmastime he decided the prisoners should have a celebration according to their own customs. Each P.O.W. was allowed to take a small Christmas tree to the barracks, and on Christmas Eve Shaw phoned the barracks with a story that his truck had broken down. The ruse got the prisoners a two-day holiday, as was traditional in Germany. When the truck was repaired, the Shaw family also delivered Christmas stockings for all the prisoners filled with homemade treats and fruit. In response the prisoners gathered outside the barracks, singing Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night) in the wintry night air. For a moment, it seemed the world was one.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake, for they shall be satisfied. For those who recognized the humanity in the least among them, sharing food with prisoners met a spiritual hunger as well. Noticing that the prisoner farm workers needed more food to fuel their hard labor, Fenton Shaw and his wife made a regular practice of bringing stew out to the fields. To ease any concerns about the ingredients in the meal, the Shaws ate together with the prisoners. In the view of many area farmers, asking a man to do hard labor without enough food was neither practical nor just.
The bonds formed between the farmers and the prisoners carried into the postwar years. John Micka returned to his homeland to find devastation and poverty. With an infant and wife to support, he turned to the farmers who had befriended him during his imprisonment. Letters from Micka and others touched the hearts of their American friends. Contributing as they could, they sent supplies, food and baby formula. Likewise, after the war, the Shaw family received a package full of German dolls, candies and gifts from some former P.O.W.’s. Times were better. Friendships became expressions of family.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. The P.O.W.’s were familiar with the harshness of military life. Punishment was expected for even the most ordinary of transgressions. So it was that one young P.O.W. broke down in tears, covering his head in protection when he accidentally knocked over a colander of apples in the farmer’s kitchen. Human kindness overcame the language barrier, and the young P.O.W. left the house with a smile and a box of apples for the barracks. At a logging camp in the Maine woods, a young P.O.W. given a shovel and told to dig a hole wept under the assumption that he was digging his own grave and was soon to be executed. His guards comforted him and eased his fears.
Another day found a prison guard on the receiving end of an act of deliberate kindness. When a farmer found himself short of field hands, the only guard around offered to drive the tractor. He removed the clip from his rifle, set the rifle against a nearby tree and got to work. At the end of the day, however, he was unable to locate the clip. Farmer and prisoners searched together unsuccessfully until a prisoner located the missing clip. Turning it over to the guard, the P.O.W. saved him from disciplinary action by his superiors.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. Filled with compassion for a young German father separated from his children, farmer Charles Long brought his four-year-old son to visit the P.O.W.’s. His wife, too, felt sad for the soldiers so far from home. Sometimes she would sit on her porch with her baby, so the soldiers could see her littlest one. After all, Edith Long explained, we are all people, not prisoners of war!
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Milton Bailey was a U.S. Army specialist assigned to process the German P.O.W.’s at Camp Houlton. What he learned in those years confirmed his belief that war was not the way to resolve differences. In my view, he wrote years later, history confirms that war is a useless waste of lives and property and a futile way of settling differences. In a postwar letter to the farmer Fenton Shaw, former P.O.W. Kurt Scheide expressed his view that peace-building required commitment and sacrifice: It is bad for all things and not good to live in Germany now. But we must be in Germany to turn away the war and help to the good and to peace.
Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Sixty years after the war, Houlton held a reunion, with four former P.O.W.’s and many townspeople in attendance. A group of Vietnam-era veterans provided an honorary motorcycle escort for the former P.O.W.’s; another veteran flew over the gathering, dipping his biplane’s wings in tribute to those gathered below. Not everyone in the town was comfortable with honoring the former detainees; forgiveness and healing from the wounds of war are sometimes just beyond human reach. But for many the reunion was not only a celebration of the remarkable goodness that appeared among enemies, but a witness to the power of the choice to be friends instead of foes.
What is the prescription for people and nations to live together in harmony? In a small Maine town on the Canadian border, deliberate kindness offered in the spirit of the Beatitudes brought a season of peace and friendship that has lasted more than 60 years. In this time of war on terrorism, could the story of Camp Houlton instruct the world on how forgiveness and deliberate kindness create peace?