During World War II, Fort Lewis in Pierce County held about 4,000 German prisoners of war. The POWs were confined there between 1942 and 1946. A few died from illness or from their war wounds, but most enjoyed food and living conditions far better than they had in the deserts of North Africa or in the battlefields of Europe. International Red Cross inspectors judged their prison conditions strict but fair.
Far From the Battlefield
POWs first landed at Fort Lewis in Pierce County in early 1942 when four Japanese, two Italians, and one German arrived from far-flung battlefields. These men were quickly transferred to other POW camps and were replaced by an all-German clientele. Only a handful of records mention Fort Lewis as a POW facility that held as many as 4,500 Germans in five camps dotted around the base. Many of the POWs came from Germany’s famed armored Afrika Corps and were captured by the British, according to Fort Lewis Military Museum curator Alan Archambault. The museum has a roster of all the Germans held at the camps, thanks to a 1945 report listing the names and units of the German soldiers being held.
"Although a number of them were Afrika Corps, many were captured later in Italy and France," Archambault said. "Looking at the list, I was surprised to find some were captured in the summer of 1944, during the breakout from Normandy."
No photos are archived in the Fort Lewis Museum because photographing POWs was against the Geneva Convention pertaining to the treatment of prisoners. The photo ban prevented acts of retribution against families of POWs and limited the POWs value for use in propaganda films. Maps of the camps around the army base have also been lost to history -- they were classified to remove a potential tool of escape.
One noteworthy report of the POW camps survives. A company clerk at the Fort Lewis POW camp, Wayne Shoemaker, relayed his story about his war years in an article available at the museum.
Wayne Shoemaker's Story
Shoemaker guarded the POWs between 1944 and 1945 and served as company clerk simply because he was the only one who could type. Shoemaker recalled that three POW camps were located just north of Gray Army Airfield, just inside the Fort Lewis main gate. Another was located just east of the field and housed disruptive POWs and Nazi Party members. The fifth camp was located near the Logistics Center, along what is now (2003) Interstate-5. The Logistics Center sign can still be seen through the barbed wire fence.
Each camp had barbed wire fences and guard towers. No weapons were allowed inside these compounds. If necessary, guards had to call for help from soldiers outside the security line. Each camp largely operated as its own city, with mess halls, supply depots, beer halls, barracks barbershops, and libraries located within the fences. The POWs also ran their own newspaper.
The camps were judged strict but fair by International Red Cross inspectors. The POWs stayed in the same style two-story wooden barracks used by U.S. soldiers at Fort Lewis. The POWs were paid 80 cents a day for their labor, which they could spend on recreational equipment or on beer in the camp’s watering hole. The POWs either worked at maintaining the camp or labored outside the barbed wire logging, clearing brush, mending uniforms, or harvesting food stuffs in the surrounding countryside.
Few prisoners tried to escape because they had no place to go once they left the compound. The camp also provided safety, food, and shelter and was far from frontline fighting. The POWs largely got better food and shelter than they had in the German Army. Even a successful escape back to Germany meant a return to the war and certain danger if not death.
Shoemaker recalled that he had a routine of meeting with the POWs for coffee and cake every morning. They always made a habit of shaking his hand. They would also raise their hands and snap their boots together in a Nazi salute every time they entered or exited a room to show that their military discipline remained intact despite their confinement. Shoemaker’s initial fear of the POWs shifted to friendship during the passing months as they talked over coffee day after day.
The German bakers even surprised Shoemaker with a birthday cake on May 21, 1945. It was a Sunday and the 21-year-old GI felt down on his first birthday away from home. He first thought the cake was a trap. The prisoners won him over and shared a six-layer sponge cake with cherry and pineapple filling.
Later "Desert Fox" General Erwin Rommel’s personal barber gave Shoemaker a haircut while at the camp. Payment for the clipping was a pack of cigarettes.
The uneventful days went by rather quickly for Shoemaker.
Escape to Nowhere
One day however, prisoner Kurt Zimmerman escaped by hanging under a truck as it drove out of the camp. No one noticed he was gone until he turned himself in to Seattle police and asked to be returned to Fort Lewis. Zimmerman later told the military investigators that he sneaked out and lived with a Seattle woman for two weeks. They eventually had an argument and she kicked him out. With no place to go, he turned himself in and returned to captivity.
The POWs hid his escape by keeping an empty space in a back row during roll calls. One of the POWs would run to the space after the clerk passing through the rows had already counted him. The POW got counted twice and therefore hid the fact that one of his comrades was missing.
Life Goes On
Shoemaker wrote about the time he attended a "wedding" inside the camp. The marriage wasn’t between inmates but between one POW and his fiancé’s glove. The woman then had a similar ceremony on the same day in Germany with the soldier’s helmet. The POWs celebrated the occasion with liquor distilled from raisins, cherries, and grapefruits.
Shoemaker, his sergeant major, and a lieutenant inadvertently got a bit tipsy from sampling shots of each of the three flavors, suggesting the German brew was relatively high octane.
When Shoemaker was later transferred to Florence, Arizona, word of the shift reached the POWs. They wrote him a letter to give to the German POWs down there if they caused him any trouble. The letter described Shoemaker as a fair and honest guard, but strict. The letter was signed by all the POWs Shoemaker guarded. They even offered to send a petition to Shoemaker’s commanders in a bid to keep him at the camp. Shoemaker declined the offer. He opted to go wherever the Army sent him.
The Fort Lewis camp remained in operation until 1946 when the Germans were repatriated. Many of the buildings have since been torn down, but a few remain. Some POWs died of disease, ailments, or from injuries suffered before reaching the camp, and they were buried in the Fort Lewis cemetery, but almost all were posthumously repatriated.